The next time you are dining on Lincoln Road and you look up at the noisy parrots serenading you while you eat your sushi, know that those parrots are most likely descendants of the ones that got away from the old Crandon Park Zoo during Hurricane Betsy in September 1965. Back before Zoo Miami was built out in the suburbs, the zoo was located at the edge of the beach on Key Biscayne. And oh what a zoo it was…
The drive to the zoo was almost as exciting as driving down to the Keys, but it was a whole lot closer. Once you drove past the iconic big fish that chased its tail advertising the Seaquarium and passed through the traffic at the toll booth to the Rickenbacker Causeway, you were “on your way to the zoo!”
We would drive with the windows down, the breeze from Biscayne Bay filling the car as we drove past sailboats and waved at people on water skis. Women in bikinis would wave back to the motorists – if they were lucky. Eventually the car would make a left hand turn into the parking lot and there it was…the beach, the zoo, the view! The Crandon Park Zoo was blessed with one of the best locations in the world.
Upon entering the zoo, you received a promise from your parents to let you go on the rides later “if you behaved.” But, you were already on one of the huge, lumbering Galapagos turtles that lingered around the front entrance. No trip to the zoo was complete for a small child without trying to climb up onto the turtles for a photograph.
You’d walk past the peacocks that always got grandma’s attention. The feathers looked a lot like the fan she used to fan herself in those days before air conditioning. Next, was the big sad looking monkey that always looked annoyed locked up in the cage. Then, the giraffes and the tigers called you as you walked on exploring the 53 acres that made up the Crandon Park Zoo.
The train ride around the zoo and the walk across the bridge to the Petting Zoo were exciting. Another favorite attraction was the big Bird House. The Aviary was filled with exotic, multi-colored birds from all over the world, each squawking loudly, making dramatic sounds and filling a child’s head with images of pirates and faraway places. Eventually you would get bored and beg to go on the carousel or the helicopter ride that would take you up in the air as it circled around on its mechanical track. Or maybe you’d even take a walk on the beach.
Just before leaving the zoo, if you were lucky, your parents would buy you a plastic tiger that was made in a machine that looked as if it was bringing Frankenstein back to life. Finally, after the long molding process was done, the warm, plastic toy was dropped down into the slot into the hands of a very happy child.
In September 1965, the zoo was badly damaged when Hurricane Betsy doubled back, turned southwest and came back at Miami after it seemed she was going to be a Carolina storm. The zoo was submerged beneath three feet of water and 250 animals died.
The idea of a zoo by the beach in the tropics began to seem like it wasn’t such a good idea after all. Although the zoo was rebuilt after Betsy, the idea to relocate the zoo inland took root. Old timers were skeptical, but move they did, and in 1980 the Miami Metro Zoo opened as a “free range zoo,” meaning the animals are not in cages as you wander through the exhibits.
Today the zoo is one of Miami’s biggest tourist attractions. U.S. News & World Report ranks the zoo as the fifth best thing to do in Miami. It is worth noting that Hurricane Andrew dealt the zoo a big blow despite its location further inland. Winds did what storm surge did not do, yet the zoo, like Miami, was rebuilt bigger and better and life went on.
Zoo Miami, as it is now known, is a destination zoo with concerts and festivals. There is the 4th Annual Brew at the Zoo on May 4, before the Mother’s Day Marathon on May 12 to raise awareness and money for the Zoo Miami Conservation Fund. There is so much to do at Zoo Miami, so put on your sunscreen, drive on down and have a fun day!
Levi Meyer is a South Florida real estate agent at Fortune International Realty. He is a third generation Miami native with a passion for all South Florida related topics. He can be contacted via his website at www.levimeyer.com. Bobbi Schwartz, Levi’s mother, is a native Miamian, freelance writer, and historian. She co-authors this column and blogs regularly at www.hurricaneharbor.blogspot.com