Zoo Treasure Hunt Series: Your Journey Begins

I confess a love for the “National Treasure” movies.  Finding clues, digging through history, solving mysteries. Such adventures capture my mind, taking me back to my childhood when I delighted in reading Nancy Drew mystery novels. 

So, how cool is it that I now solve mysteries and hunt for treasures—at the Zoo?!

Because of my job, I’ve discovered obscured plaques and missing memorabilia. I’ve traced missing artifacts, pieced together history and tracked down photos. Just this month, I and the Zoo’s museum specialist, Sherri Vance, dug up rare images to be used for a documentary film, scoured photographs for information about the Zoo Lake’s old drainage system and worked with a ranger from the National Park System to create a joint exhibit on 1930s architecture.

Hunting through the Zoo’s past requires digging through the archives, both at the ZooZeum and the Oklahoma History Center, stomping around Zoo grounds for landmarks and keeping an eye out for eBay finds. We actually use a magnifying glass more than you’d think, as we look closely at photographs and artifacts. 

I know what you are thinking.  How do I apply for the job of Zoo Treasure Hunter?  Sadly, that fabulous title doesn’t exist, but my Zoo career has come to encompass a wide array of “seeking lost history.”

Here are a few mysteries that I’ve unraveled, and you can view the results yourself on Zoo grounds:

  • The location of the original home of the Zoo’s 1930s elephant, now the current red panda exhibit.
  • Oklahoma’s largest piece of petrified wood still on display in front of the Herpetarium.
  • The earliest-known giraffe exhibit, which is now the Butterfly Garden.  Look for the tall support wall along the back of the garden. Guests once looked down on the giraffes from the current Stingray Bay location.

Here are a few unsolved mysteries we’re still investigating:

  • What was the Herpetarium’s original 1920s purpose? The interior layout is cryptic and multi-leveled, with built-in fireplaces and underground stairwells. In theory, it was an outdoor pavilion, but we haven’t found the photos or architectural plans to prove that yet.
  • How to rescue a historically-important 1939 dinosaur mural painted on stucco wall out of view of the general public. An art conservator is needed soon, because the paint is flaking away daily.

Want to join me on this on-going Zoo Treasure Hunt?  Here are a few things you can do: 

  • Keep an eye open for OKC Zoo memorabilia (postcards, clothing, artifacts) at antique stores or online. I’d love to find a 1950s zookeeper’s hat. 
  • Ask older family members and friends if they have old Zoo photographs of the Zoo to have or scan, especially dating between the 1920-1960s.
  • Learn more by reading these books about the Zoo’s history: Oklahoma City Zoo 1902-1959 or Oklahoma City Zoo 1960-2013.
  • View the ever-changing historical exhibits at the Patricia and Byron J. Gambulos ZooZeum, located in the elephant habitat area.
  • Have skills relating to architecture, historical research, art preservation, geology, restoration, etc.? You may be able to help us uncover the right clues.

Unlike the mystery books and movies I love so much, solving real historical mysteries never ends with a final chapter and conclusion.  Each case uncovers more mysteries to solve—and that’s why the Zoo is an amazing place to be a Treasure Hunter. Have something historical to share or want more information, call us at (405) 425-0218.

--Amy Dee Stephens, naturalist instructor supervisor

Herpetarium photo credit:  Ralph Harris collection, OKC Zoo Historical Archive; an early view looking down on the Herpetarium building.

Mural photo credit:  Amy Stephens; an enlarged image of the 1939 dinosaur mural by Works Progress Administration artist Ruth Monro Augur.

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