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Manito's Zoo is a Blessing & a Curse - It Closes! 

During the zoo’s 28 year history, there were a few incidents of injuries caused by the caged animals. The most serious sent a chill through the community. On July 10, 1923, nine-year-old Elizabeth Harris was feeding bread to the polar bears. One of the bears pulled her right arm into the enclosure and the other, smelling blood, attacked and severed it. Throughout this entire trauma, Elizabeth was remarkably brave. She insisted she was at fault and that no harm be done to the bears. Her wishes were honored. Elizabeth overcame any suggestion of a handicap and lived a normal life.

The zoo had been in existence for almost three years when the Olmstead Brothers made their recommendations to the park board in 1907. Had this report been presented prior to the zoo’s inception, it is doubtful Manito Park would have ever had a zoo. The following are excerpts from this report:

"For a few years it may continue to be advisable to have the zoological show in Manito Park, but all arrangements in connection with it there should be made with the idea of eventually removing the show to a larger park… In parks, the zoological collection should always be regarded merely as an incidental attraction, and it should not be allowed to absorb an undue share of the park appropriation. A complete zoological show is a very expensive affair, particularly in maintenance."

Contrary to the recommendations of this report, the zoo remained a focal point of the park through 1932. Like the rest of the country, the Parks Department was suffering the effects of the Depression. The annual cost to feed the animals had risen to $3,000, which the park budget was straining to cover. In addition, there was a constant concern about the park’s potential liability, as well as the neighbors’ complaints about the stench and nightly screeching or howling from the zoo. The zoo’s days were numbered, but the park board did not make the decision lightly; some members even argued to close the greenhouses instead of the zoo. When the issue was finally put to a vote, the zoo lost by a 6-5 vote.

On October 13, 1932, a terse letter from the secretary of the park board was delivered to John Duncan, then park superintendent:

“Dear Sir, At the adjourned regular meeting of the Park Board held this date, the Park Superintendent was instructed to dispose of the animals now at the Manito Park Zoo, to the best advantage without cost to the city, prior to January 1, 1933.”

As 1933 dawned, the zoo fell quiet. Many of the animals were sold or given to other zoos, and some were turned loose in the wild. But some Spokane residents still remember the trauma of hearing gunshots ring out from the zoo, sealing the fate of those animals for which no homes had been found. Many of the animals were stuffed and, for years, stored or displayed at the Cheney Cowles Museum. At one point, Zero, the polar bear who tore Elizabeth Harris’ arm from her body, was among the collection. She had met her demise when her mate jumped on her back, breaking her neck.

Next week, we will learn something about the aftermath of the zoo’s closing.
Manito Park: A Reflection of Spokane’s Past 


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