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The Evolution of the Best Little Zoo in North America

construction at zoo

In 1933, the Civil Works Administration employees construct what is now known as the “Holly Circle”

Our little Zoo has a very unique story. Records show that the Salisbury Zoo was established in 1954. Before our Zoo became a zoo, it was a marshy area flooded by a dam that created Humphrey’s Pond. The City of Salisbury purchased the 168-acre property in 1926 because it contained a major source of water. The City was not only interested in the water but also wanted to make a park for the City. This property connected two sides of the community, which helped to make a beautiful park for the City’s residents. A Salisbury Park Commission was established to oversee the park.

baby elephant being fed

Zookeeper Victor Volkemer bottle feeds Ollie the elephant. The Zoo kept Ollie for a very short period and transferred him to the National Zoo, where more exhibit space was available for this large animal.

During the early 1950s, unwanted wild animals were released into the Salisbury Municipal Park. City Public Works employees began to take care of these animals, building makeshift cages and enclosures. One of first animals to appear was a white-tailed deer fawn, which was bottle-fed and cared for by City employees. Soon after, a black bear was given to the park. The animal population grew, and early donations from residents from Maryland, Delaware and Virginia included skunks, raccoons, turkeys, owls, peacocks, rabbits, goats, monkeys, ocelots, dingoes and waterfowl.

In 1954, the animal population had grown so much so that the City of Salisbury decided to hire its first zookeeper. The new “Zoo” was born. Local merchants donated food, visitors donated money, and support was provided by the City of Salisbury. Over the next 10 years, other animals were added to the collection, including bison and llamas.

Bear hanging on a branch

Andean bears were brought into the Zoo’s animal collection in the 1970s. Pictured above is Alba, a female Andean bear born at the Zoo in 2015.

In the early 1960s, City officials realized the need to expand and to provide an environment suitable for the animals. The Salisbury Zoo Commission was established in 1967 to assist with the development of the park. Fences were extended, shelters were built and professional landscaping began. In 1970, the first professional zoo director was hired.

In 1972, a local car dealer, Oliphant Car Dealership, donated a baby elephant called “Ollie” from Thailand. Two female Andean bears and one male were acquired not long after that.

In 1977, the Friends of the Salisbury Zoo was formed to assist in fundraising. A Volunteer Zoo Education Committee was also formed. In the 1980s, the spider monkey, ocelot, sloth and waterfowl exhibits were built. The Eastern Shore Builders Association Education Center was built in 1994. The Zoo’s gift shop was later added. In 2007, the Richard and Patricia Hazel Delmarva Trail was built, featuring red wolf, beaver, turkey, white-tailed deer, wood duck and bison.

wolf walking

Red wolves were acquired in 2007. The Zoo has  participated in the Red Wolf Species Survival Plan, a conservation initiative to save them from extinction.

In 2009, the Delmarva Zoological Society was established to help fund needed improvements. The Renew the Zoo capital campaign began and the annual Just Zoo It campaign through regional schools debuted.

Now, fundraising is organized by the City of Salisbury and the Salisbury Zoo Commission.

Today, the Salisbury Zoo encompasses over 12 acres within the City Park, along a tributary of the Wicomico River. It has remained one of the few municipal zoos that provides free admission and parking to its community.