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By Steve Cichon

My North Buffalo neighbor seems to be enjoying the weather…

You can stand there all day (and I have) and these guys won’t look at you.

I was lucky enough to stand there for only a few minutes when Buster here looked over for the portrait.

When Buffalo went wild for Big Frank, the zoo’s first elephant

       By Steve Cichon

Very soon, nearly 12 decades of tradition at The Buffalo Zoo will come to an end when Buffalo Zoo’s two Asian elephants, Jothi and Surapa, move to the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans.

When they’re gone, it will mark the first time since 1900 the zoo has been without an elephant, or at least plans to find an elephant to bring here.

The elephant who’d come to be known as “Big Frank” wasn’t all that big when he came to The Buffalo Zoo as a 7-year-old in 1900.

Buffalo philanthropist Frank Goodyear paid to bring a juvenile elephant from India to Western New York just before the Pan-American Exposition, which was held only a few blocks away from the zoo.

“Frank H. Goodyear has promised to fill a big gap in the city’s collection of animals by providing an elephant, which is in great demand. When the zoo can boast of a real live Indian elephant, a lion, a Bengal tiger and a baby hippopotamus, the joy of Buffalo children will be complete,” reported The Buffalo Courier in anticipation of the elephant’s arrival.

Frank the Elephant was named after his benefactor, and was just over 5 feet tall and 2,000 pounds when he arrived in Buffalo at the age of 7. The elephant spent most of his first several years at the Buffalo Zoo with a shackle around his front leg attached to eight feet of chain.

“He seemed to enjoy the bracing breeze and looked as if he would have enjoyed a longer chain rope,” reported The Courier in 1901. “The reason of Frank’s short allowance of chain was said to be his fondness for attacking fences. By and by the post to which he is tied will be moved to a safer distance and he will then be allowed more exercise room.”

For many years, his only true exercise came when he was put to work. Parks crews attached a giant cement roller to Frank, and he was part of the crew used to repave and flatten the roads around Delaware Park.

As Frank grew larger, and his popularity grew, so, too, did calls for more humane treatment.

It would take 13 years of political wrangling and arguing over the cost of the extravagance of a house “just for an elephant” before Frank would get a new pad – the Elephant House, which remains home to elephants at the zoo to this day.

John Lord O’Brian made his opposition to the planned $35,000 expenditure to build a new home for Frank a major plank in his candidacy for mayor – calling it a needless waste and a “needless expenditure of the people’s money.”

Sculptor Ira Lake created the elephant artwork which graces the front of the Buffalo Zoo’s Elephant House. He’s shown with his work a few months before Big Frank moved in, in 1912.

Among the final straws which helped convince city fathers of the need of a proper facility was the day when Frank gave his leg a quick snap and easily broke apart the cuff and chain which held him in place all day, every day. A new, more solid shackle was made permanent.

It took zookeepers two days to saw through the chain and shackle which kept the now-12,000 pound elephant in place before the new house was built.

Big Frank was much happier in his new, more spacious home.

The Buffalo Times called Frank “the monarch of the $35,000 castle of marble, brick and steel,” and went on to say, “The giant pachyderm fretted in the strange confines for the first few days, but yesterday afternoon was treading the concrete floor of the spacious arena as proudly as if in the native wilds of an Indian jungle.”

He was given pool time, which seemed to be his favorite part of the day. Frank’s morning baths, which were filled with trunk sprays of water and gleeful trumpeting, were among the zoo’s biggest attractions in the first part of the last century.

Frank was also known for fits of rage. His tusks were the largest ever grown in captivity. He broke one off when he violently smashed it against the stone wall of his house.

The violence came with much mistreatment. Children would toss glass bottles into his enclosure. He liked playing with them, but when they’d break, he’d get glass in his paws or his gums. He needed a minor surgical procedure when he swallowed some glass in the 1920s.

He also loved tobacco. Men would throw him cigar butts and he’d gleefully eat them, and zookeepers would give him cigars to eat on special occasions.

Big Frank enjoying a bath in his new, more spacious enclosure in 1913.

The Buffalo Zoo always promoted Big Frank as one of the largest animals in captivity, even after his death. Frank’s obituary ran in newspapers around the world. The 10-feet-tall, six-ton elephant suffered a stroke and died in 1939.

Torn-Down Tuesday: the Farmstead, built for Buffalo parks’ superintendent

By Steve Cichon

The Parks Superintendent’s House, also known as The Farmstead. mid-1880s. (Buffalo Stories archives)

Frederick Law Olmsted’s lesser-known partner in “Olmsted & Vaux” was Calvert Vaux, who designed many of the Buffalo park system’s early buildings and structures, including the Farmstead, which was built in 1875 “to be used as a residence and office by the General Superintendent” of the parks.

The house and barns stood in what is now the Buffalo Zoo’s parking lot.

An 1877 report states, “Beside the dwelling house, a roomy stable, a fowl house, several enclosed sheds for the steam roller, the water sprinklers and the mowing machines, and for the storage of all the implements and tools in general use on the parks.”

All of the limestone used in the construction of the Farmstead buildings was mined from the neighboring park quarry — a now-filled-in area in front of the Parkside Lodge and Delaware Park golf course starter’s area.

Later, a barn was built to “give storage room for hay and stable room for a good flock of sheep, which we hope to keep hereafter, of sufficient number to graze the large meadow.”

Parks leaders experimented with having sheep graze what is now the Delaware Park golf course, instead of mechanically mowing the vast lawns. Besides maintaining the grass, a commissioner’s report says, “their presence on the broad lawn will be an additional attraction to Park visitors and will give a natural animation to the quiet pastoral character of this portion of the Park.”

The home — and who had the right to live in it — became a political hot potato in 1922, when the new parks commissioner decided he wanted to move into the home, which had been mostly offices for several years previous.

An article on the front page of the Buffalo Express during that battle described the home this way:

The house is of another day, but it is a fine big rambling structure and, decorators say, it has great possibilities with the expenditure of a few thousand dollars to bring it up to date. The east side of the house and grounds are guarded by the iron fence that borders Parkside avenue. A picket fence protects the rear from invasion by any of the everyday folk who visit the zoo and who may make the mistake of thinking that all of the park is theirs. In front is a park of large elms and maples, and south and west as far as vision reaches are the rolling meadow and vistas of shrubbery and groves. Beside the narrow gravel walk which leads to the main entrance is a large new sign in letters of gold five or six Inches high which reads: PRIVATE.

It’s unclear exactly when the Superintendent’s House was torn down, but in 1941, Buffalo’s Common Council authorized the collection of a 10-cent fee for motorists who parked in “an area adjacent to the park zoo being prepared for the parking of automobiles.”

The 185,000-square-foot lot, which had been the site of the Superintendent’s House, would provide parking space for 320 automobiles and “relieve congestion on streets and park roads adjacent to the zoo, caused by automobiles parked by zoo visitors,” according to Parks Commissioner Edward G. Zeller.

1876 view of “The Farmstead.” (Buffalo Stories archives)

The Blizzard of ’77 and the Buffalo Zoo

By Steve Cichon

Just what exactly happened to the animals at the Buffalo Zoo during the Blizzard of ’77 has become one of those great stories that everyone seems to have some faded recollection of having heard before, but nobody knows for sure.

Just like the snow was piled up to the roof line of this house in Depew, such was the case for three reindeer at the Buffalo Zoo. (Buffalo Stories archives)

So, as you sit around waiting out a heavy snow squall in the warmest corner of the gin mill, everyone throws in details until a story emerges that is fanciful enough to have happened during one of the most fabled events in Buffalo’s history.

The real story might not live up to the craziest version concocted on Buffalo barstools over the last 40 years, but it’s still pretty fanciful.

Two days into the storm, on Sunday, Jan. 28, the giant 8-foot snow drifts that had blown up against their habitat allowed three Scandinavian Reindeer to easily traverse an area usually filled with fences and moats and make their way past the Delaware Park meadow, up towards Buffalo State College.

A tranquilized reindeer being prepared for transport back to the zoo. (Buffalo Stories archives)

That’s about where one of the three 500-pound deer was hit with a tranquilizer gun. The excitement caused the others to scatter.

Word of the animals on the loose was broadcast, and good Samaritans helped triangulate the location of the deer, one of which was captured in a Buffalo backyard. The other was lassoed on a Village of Kenmore side street.

Not all the stories ended so happily.

Two sheep wandered out of their pen in the petting zoo. One was safely returned, the other apparently made it over a drift and was never found.

With doorways and paths enveloped in massive amounts of snow, in most instances, food and hay for animals were dropped in from roofs of buildings.

Despite zookeepers’ doing the best they could, 16 birds — including two black swans —  and seven mammals — including one of the escaped reindeer and an antelope — died as a result of the storm.

They didn’t starve, acting zoo director Terry Gladkowski told the media as the city was still cleaning up after the storm. It was mainly stress and the cold that killed the animals, many of which were initially caught outside and died later after being brought in from the cold and snow. He said the birds “just basically froze,” and other animals couldn’t receive the daily medical care they needed.

The storm also caused about $420,000 damage to the zoo’s buildings and grounds.

There is a fictionalized version of life in the Buffalo Zoo during the blizzard, written in 1983 by Robert Bahr in the form of a children’s book. According to the New York Times Book Review, the basic plot of “Blizzard at the Zoo” is exactly what you might expect.

“Many of the animals romped and frisked, some stoically endured, and others, like the waterfowl, had to be rescued from freezing ponds.”

Buffalo in the ’40s: The Zoo’s Marlin Perkins and Eddie the Chimp

By Steve Cichon

As Mutual of Omaha’s “Wild Kingdom” was on the air from 1963 to 1985, Buffalonians were always quick to claim the host Marlin Perkins as one of our own.

Buffalo News archives

America’s best-known animal lover in the TV age, Perkins grew and expanded the Buffalo Zoo in the years he was curator and then director in the 1930s and 1940s.

Perkins is pictured in 1944 as he was leaving for a new post in Chicago, accepting a suitcase from Eddie the Chimp.

For as famous as Perkins was around the country, he could barely compete with the sensation he created at the Buffalo Zoo.

Eddie was the Buffalo Zoo’s first chimpanzee when he arrived from Africa in 1940. Eddie was friendly and willing to take direction, and Perkins and staff had soon taught Eddie to dance and to shave his keeper — with a straight razor. It was clear that Eddie loved the limelight, and would seemingly do anything for applause. Keepers dressed him in a Marine uniform and the chimp raised money for the USO during World War II.

But soon after Eddie became an adult — when he was 5 or 6 years old — Eddie stopped wanting to perform. One handler said it was pretty clear that Eddie thought of himself as more human than chimp. He never associated with the other chimps and never mated.

By the early 1950s, Eddie was clearly angry. The banana peels he’d fling at passersby were the least offensive organic matter one might get pelted with.

In the late 1950s, after Eddie spat at and threw dung at a group of passing VIPs, glass was placed between Eddie and zoo visitors and the barrier seemed to suit him just fine.

For more than 30 years, visitors to the zoo didn’t know what they might get from Eddie. Maybe a dance, reminiscent of the way he was in the 1940s … or maybe the show looked more like something from a bawdy boys high school locker room.

That was part of Eddie’s somewhat sad draw though — never knowing what you might see.

At the age of 47, Eddie the Chimp was the oldest resident at the Buffalo Zoo when he was euthanized after suffering a stroke in 1985. Perkins died the next year.

Elephants roaming Parkside… Really!

By Steve Cichon

On my way to church Sunday morning, I was making the right onto Jewett Parkway from Parkside Avenue, and there they were– the elephants from the zoo were eating maple tree branches right off the trees on the edge of the Buffalo Zoo parking lot!

The handlers say the “helicopters” on the maple trees are like candy for them. These three elephants are all babies and that this was the farthest they’d walked outside the elephant house.

It’s a bit reminiscent of a story that happened  in the ’20s or ’30s, when Frank the Elephant walked out of the zoo unnoticed, and made his way almost to Hertel Avenue before being brought back to his home at the zoo.

Just another great reason to love living in Parkside!

Photos taken with my Motorola Razr flip phone.