April 1, 2021

Redefining Bear Necessities



When Dan Castello’s “Circus, Menagerie and Abyssinian Caravan” rolled into Denver for the first time, in June of 1869, the nascent Mile High City had just a decade under its belt and fewer than 5,000 residents. Still, people came out in force to witness the spectacle—which boasted a “fine Zoological Collection” including trained tigers, performing bears and brightly-plumed birds.
Denver was delighted by its first visiting circus. And, while Castello’s caravan promised “Amusement and Pleasure, Combined with Instruction,” the idea of preserving these delights was also beginning to enter the national awareness. With a new century looming on the horizon, early conservationists like Teddy Roosevelt were urging greater foresight and care with regard to natural resources...including wildlife.

The Bearest of Beginnings 

Of course, it would take a decade or two for practice to catch up with policy. A few years later, in 1896, mayor Thomas S. McMurry was gifted an American black bear cub named Billy Bryan—a living, breathing jab from a political rival with a wild sense of humor. And the joke was, indeed, on McMurry; the bruin left a trail of wanton destruction in its wake, from bedlam at the train station to (minor) bodily harm at the Bailey residence to B&E in City Park bird menageries. Ultimately, Billy was entrusted to the care of Alfred Hill, a park employee who would go on to become Denver Zoo’s first keeper and superintendent.

Billy Bryan 1910

In the years since Castello’s visit, multiple private animal collections had amassed within Denver’s elitethe most comprehensive being John and Mary Elitch’s Zoological Gardens. But John C. Gallup, President of the Denver Board of Park Commissioners, had long believed that his city should have a public zoo; an accessible attraction in the city’s largest park. And sowith a solitary bear and a single animal caretakerGallup founded Denver Zoo—a humbly-born institution that would soon be leading the pack. 

Rising Above the Rest 

In turn-of-the-century America, zoos were relatively new conceptmany of the day’s best practices for caring for wildlife in captivity were gleaned from circuses and traveling menageries—the only available source of knowledge. Barred and heavily meshed enclosures were the status quo. But as Denver Zoo was gradually expanding its collection in the early years, leaders wanted more for both animals and guests. 

Enter Carl Hagenbeck: the German zoo designer who was making waves across the pond. Hagenbeck believed that people should be able to experience wildlife at eye level, in authentic environments unhindered by bars or fences—and his work in Stellingen (near Hamburg) was garnering worldwide attention. Originally a circus impresario, Hagenbeck was fundamentally a showman. But in this case, his knack for illusion would ultimately change the face of the entire zoological park industry...for the better. 

An Idea that Bears Repeating 

By 1916, Denver was also in thrall of a nationwide City Beautiful movement, which beseeched municipalities around the country to consider aesthetics as well as industrial progress. The park board secured leading landscape architects to develop Denver Zoo’s first comprehensive master plan. The resulting “Zoological Garden plan, submitted in 1915, is a study in contrastsfeaturing tennis courts, cages and formal plantings as well as dedicated space for the first Hagenbeck-style “habitat zoo.”  

Mayor Robert W. Speer was an ardent supporter of naturalistic zoo improvements, saying in a civic address, “Our animals in the City Park need new homes. Prison bars can be done away with...concrete rocks, waterfalls, trees, etc., with a moat in front, would make animals even in captivity look and feel at home.” Within the next few years, this idea would blossom into the blueprint for Bear Mountain, and be brought to fruition by landscape architect and planner Saco Reink DeBoer.  

The Summit of Natural Exhibit Design

DeBoer took Hagenbeck’s philosophy to heart. Insistent that the topography of the Bear Mountain exhibit be authentic to the region, he ordered his team to take plaster casts of the natural cliffs at the summit of Dinosaur Mountain, just north of Morrison. Mule trains packed casting supplies up the rocky slope, then hauled the completed casts down the hillsidewhere waiting trucks transported them back to City Park. 

The iconic 185-foot rockwork sculpture was then cast in concrete and secured to a soaring superstructure made of solid steel. As described in a 1919 Denver Municipal Facts, “The rear cliffs rise in two tiers, the first tier being topped by a shelf which forms the roof of the sleeping dens and runway...on this are planted pines and shrubs, and a water course leads a stream along the top of the first cliffs...a wide moat runs in front of the entire arrangement.” One of the most ambitious zoo habitats in history at the time, the project ultimately cost more than $50,000—more than $650,000 by today’s standards. 

Bear Mountain 1920

Worldwide Roaring Success 

When it opened in 1918, Bear Mountain was the first example of Hagenbeck’s habitat zoo in the U.S.—and it was an immediate sensation. People came from all over world to watch the bears splash in the moat and romp amongst the rocks and trees, with thrilling views uninterrupted by mesh or bars. Eventually, the roadway fronting the exhibit was closed, to protect the steady stream of pedestrians from automobile traffic.  

Experts quoted in Literary Digest pronounced the exhibit “the most comprehensive and realistic in the world,” and it would not only redefine “bear necessities” for our beloved ursine inhabitantsit would also position Denver Zoo as a global leader in both exhibit design and animal care. The success of Bear Mountain helped to pave the way for an industry-wide transition to naturalistic exhibitry. And, perhaps most importantly, it helped to foster a critical shift in public perception about zoosaway from pure escapist entertainment, and towards “urban hubs for education and conservation. 

Next Stop: Harmony Hill

In the century between Bear Mountain and Harmony Hill, Denver Zoo would undergo countless dramatic changes—including a $250,000 restoration to preserve the heritage of our original lair (1987) as well as award-winning rotational habitats like Predator Ridge (2005) and Toyota Elephant Passage (2012). With each new exhibit, we’ve pushed our previous boundaries, constantly looking for new ways to engage, educate and inspire our guests 

Today, Harmony Hill (2019) offers much more than the basic necessities for Tundra, our resident grizzly girl. In addition to a spacious home filled with opportunities for her to exercise natural bear behaviors like climbing, digging, den-building, swimming and sunbathing, this immersive exhibit is also intended to help our human visitors understand how to live in harmony with wildlife—both in the backcountry, and in their own backyards.

Harmony Hills Hero

Unbearably Awesome Education

On Tundra's turf, guests will see common backyard items like a bird feeder, hammock and swimming pool—all designed to withstand the rough affections of female grizzly bears, which can weigh up to 800 pounds. While Tundra is livin' her best bear life, our guests are learning what attracts grizzly bears to our territory...along with small changes everyone can make, to help to discourage trespassing.  

And Tundra's the perfect poster child for these lessons. She came to us by way of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services, who rescued the orphaned cub when her mother, dubbed a "nuisance bear" for repeated clashes with humans in her native Alaska, was killed. Aguests explore Harmony Hill State Park, designed to evoke the experience of camping and hiking in one of our state or national parks, they enjoy a variety of unique vantage points from which to watch Tundra being her wonderful, one-of-a-kind self. Along the way, they learn how to discourage contact, should they be lucky enough find yourself in bear country. 

bear on rock

Bear with Us: Great Things Are Coming!

What’s next for Denver Zoo’s bears—and the rest of our wonderful animal family? Lots of exciting stuff! With the new African penguin exhibit opening later this year and a fabulous flamingo lagoon in the works, we’re constantly striving to up-level both animal welfare and guest experience. Stay tuned for official opening dates...along with announcements about other new projects on the horizon.  

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