Chicago's long-forgotten zoo

A video profile of a West Side zoo comes together with help from a historian sleuth and the ghost of an urban bear.

October 3, 2013

Katie Kather, Logan Jaffe and Shawn Allee

Our question comes from John Lillig, a resident of the West Ridge neighborhood on Chicago’s far North Side. The location is important to this story in that he’s intimately familiar with the nearby Indian Boundary Park. It's a place, he says, where he once could take his child to visit a tiny zoo that housed a llama, a bear, and other animals. In recent years, the zoo comprised a goat, a handful of chickens and some ducks.

As the summer closed, the Chicago Park District shuttered the zoo and relocated the animals to the flagship Lincoln Park Zoo. But before all this came to pass, John’s curiosity had been piqued, and he sent along this question:

With the rumored closing of the Indian Boundary Park zoo, I was wondering about the history of that unusual neighborhood zoo and wondering what other zoos may have existed in Chicago other than Lincoln Park Zoo (or Brookfield Zoo). I have heard that Indian Boundary Zoo is the only remaining neighborhood zoo of what were once several neighborhood zoos. Is this true? What other zoos have existed in Chicago, where were they located, and what is there now?

As there had been a lot of coverage of Indian Boundary this year, we took on the latter half of his question. It’s a good thing, too, since the answer required some digging.

Thankfully, John was able to provide a solid lead. He once taught literature classes, he says, and would use the AIA Guide to Chicago as source material. He noticed that the entry on Indian Boundary Park mentioned that it was the only remaining neighborhood zoo, which suggested there had once been others.

Several experts we consulted — including some who contributed to the AIA guide — didn’t know of of any other neighborhood zoos. But, it turns out, there had been one.

The West Side’s lost zoo

Chicago Park District historian Julia Bachrach directed us to Union Park, located at 1501 W. Randolph St.

We met Bachrach there, against the backdrop of kids playing on the playground and people jogging. During a short tour, she explained what the park was like in the late 1800s, and how, like many American parks at that time, it had a zoo or, more accurately, a menagerie.

“It really was looked at like a collection of animals, something to entertain the people who came to use the park,” she said. “They weren’t at all thinking about the needs of the animals or what it would take to take proper care of them.”

So, with Bachrach’s good graces, and help from the Chicago Park District, the Chicago History Museum and the ghost of an urban bear, we produced this video profile of the West Side’s long-forgotten zoo.

Image credits: Thanks to the Chicago Park District for permission to film at Union Park and for access to historical images posted in the facility’s field house.

Scanned images courtesy of the Chicago History Museum. They include:

  • Visitors at the bear den at Union Park, Chicago, Illinois: ICHi-26321
  • Two men and a bear at the bear den at Union Park, Chicago, Illinois: ICHi-26322
  • Map of Union Park, Chicago, Illinois, 1912. From the book Maps of the Parks under the jurisdiction of West Chicago Park Commissioners: ICHi-68171
  • Map of Garfield Park, Chicago, Illinois, 1885. O. F. Dubuis, Landscape Architect: ICHi-68170

Katie Kather is an arts and culture reporting intern at WBEZ. Follow her @ktkather edits Curious City, which you can follow @WBEZCuriousCity.