By Sal Maccarone
At the turn of the 20th century, Fresno had a population of close to 12,500 residents. This burgeoning citizenry realized early on that it was time to set aside an area for a city park that could afford some “breathing room.”
Marianne Roeding stepped up to the plate and donated well over 120 acres between Olive and Belmont streets, bordered by what is now highway 99.
Shortly after Marianne’s kind donation to the citizens of Fresno, Johannes Reimers, a landscape designer, took on the challenge of mapping out the new park. Working as a naturalist, and with a good knowledge of what will actually grow in the Central Valley, Johannes planted close to 4,000 trees!
Marianne’s son, George Roeding, became the first park commissioner, and personally donated many of the trees.
The beginnings of a zoo within Roeding Park entered the picture sometime during 1908 with a small collection of donated, and endangered, animals. Constantly evolving from that point on there was finally an official opening of “The Roeding Park Zoo” in 1929.
Attendance records show that 2140 people visited the newly sanctioned and official zoo that year.
During the 1940s and 1950s the zoo started to take shape, with permanent built-in exhibits and an ever-growing list of animals.
In 1965, Dr. Paul Chaffee was hired as the first formal director of the zoo. He designated nutrition programs, implemented climate control for the animals where needed, and instituted a general professionalism throughout.
During 2004, the citizens of Fresno — this time 455,000 strong — intervened once again by passing “Measure Z.” Z for Zoo, of course! This allowed an increase in the size of the zoo within Roeding Park, bringing it to a total of thirty-nine acres. The measure also allowed for a master plan that would expand the zoo in aesthetic ways.
In 2012, a multi-level Sea Lion and Pelican exhibit was opened. It is beautifully rendered to resemble the rocks, and used scenery found only on the Central Coast of California. Viewing the quarter million gallon salt water exhibit can be done from above or below the water line. With a 35-foot wide subterranean viewing window one can easily get a sense of how graceful sea lions are underwater.
In October of 2015, a new 13-acre exhibit called “African Adventure” was opened. Well planned and realistically rendered, this section alone is home to elephants, a family of rhinoceros, giraffes, lions, cheetahs, and meerkats, all running free. The year that “Africa Adventure” opened the zoo had an attendance of over 1,000,000 visitors.
Today, the Fresno Chaffee Zoo is accredited by many prestigious organizations including the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums. It is easy to spot the artwork intermingled throughout. Some of the things that stand out include the many strategically placed brass sculptures, the eight carved wooden giraffes that hold up a roof, a three-story walk through aviary, (complete with a many-stage waterfall), and of course, the many enclosures, habitats and displays.
I highly recommend a visit! The Fresno Chaffee Zoo is a wonderful place to wander…
Here is a link to their official website: fresnochaffeezoo.org