On April 30, 1904, the Louisiana Purchase Exposition opened to the world on the grounds of Forest Park in St. Louis. To walk through Forest Park today, nearly one hundred and nineteen years later, you almost wouldn’t know the fair had been there at all. The only structures that remain are the Art Museum building and a large, elliptical, walk-through birdcage that forms part of the St. Louis Zoo.
The aviary wasn’t originally intended to be a permanent structure. It had been erected by the Smithsonian Institute to house the birds it would display as part of the fair. When the fair was over, the city of St. Louis, which had long wanted a zoo, purchased the structure and by 1913 had erected a seventy-seven-acre zoological garden around it.
In 1916 the school children of the city donated enough pennies to acquire the zoo’s first elephant, Miss Jim, and the same year, St. Louis voters approved a special tax to support their new zoo, which today remains one of very few community-supported zoos in the world, offering free admission to visitors.
In 1921 came bear pits; in 1924, a primate house; and in 1927, a reptile house. The 1960s brought an aquatic house, a children’s area and railroad, and a significant renovation to the original aviary. Over the years the zoo in Forest Park has been improved a great deal, has expanded to cover ninety acres, and welcomed around three million visitors per year. It currently houses about eight hundred different species, including 9,200 animals.
But there’s about to be one less critter among them because on February 7, 2023, a four-year-old Andean bear named Ben escaped his enclosure. Fortunately, this happened in the morning before the zoo had opened to the public and Ben was tranquilized and secured without incident. Zoo staff added stainless steel cargo clips with 450 pounds of tensile strength to the steel mesh through which Ben had found his way to freedom. All was well.
Then about three weeks later Ben forced his way through the new cargo clips and escaped again. This time, the zoo was open. Visitors were ushered indoors while Ben was once again tranquilized and secured. With the exception of the cargo clips, no real harm was done.
Evidently, like so many St. Louis residents these days, with skyrocketing crime rates, a district attorney under fire who can’t even seem to keep the zoo animals behind bars, and yet more negative national media attention, Ben the Andean bear doesn’t want to be in the city. He’s moving to Texas.
And who can blame him, really? This delightful Houdini has been described by zoo staff as a fun and playful character. Soon he’ll get to trade his steel mesh in this currently struggling city for a moat at the Gladys Porter Zoo in Brownsville, Texas, right next to the Mexican border where thankfully there is little crime, a well-functioning system in place for keeping everyone well-organized and contained, and almost no media attention whatsoever.