The Children’s Zoo, a St. Louis Zoo mainstay for more than 50 years, will close.
The attraction, formally named the Emerson Children’s Zoo, will remain open with free admission through the end of October, the zoo announced Thursday.
In spring, a dinosaur exhibit will open in its place and will stay there for a couple years as the zoo figures out what to do next with the area, which occupies 3½ acres on the north side of the zoo. It will include something suitable for families and children.
The Children’s Zoo opened in 1969, celebrating its 50th anniversary last year.
“It was a heart-wrenching decision to close the Children’s Zoo, however, safety is our highest priority,” Jeffrey Bonner, president and CEO of the zoo, said in a statement. “The Children’s Zoo was designed for high-touch and interactive experiences, which is not conducive to a COVID or post-COVID environment.”
The zoo reopened to the public in June after closing in March because of the coronavirus. The Children’s Zoo eventually reopened as well, but without the animal shows, an open indoor building, the playground, the goat yard where visitors can pet and brush goats, and one-on-one interactions with keepers handling animals. The Children’s Zoo became more of a walk-through, passive experience.
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The animals from the Children’s Zoo are being relocated to other parts of the zoo or to other facilities. The Tasmanian devils remain, as well as animals like the American crow, burro, Cotswold sheep, domestic goat, alpaca, pot-bellied pig, North American river otter and some reptiles.
The dinosaur exhibit, called Dinoroarus, will include 15 different groupings of animatronic dinosaurs, including a life-size brontosaurus and a 12-foot Tyrannosaurus rex. Living birds, descendants of dinosaurs, will round out the exhibit. The zoo hosted a similar dinosaur exhibit in 2008, but this one will be bigger, Bonner said. There will be an admission fee for the exhibit, but prices have not been set.
St. Louis Zoo director Michael Macek said in an interview Thursday that closing the Children’s Zoo was “probably one of the most difficult decisions we’ve had to make” as the zoo looked at its finances and plans. The zoo had planned to reinvent the space anyway within the next five years, based on new research on early childhood development. Officials would like to create more of a nature-based space where children can discover and work. The Children’s Zoo now is more of a curated experience, he said.
“It was going to be closed at some point,” he said. “The current circumstances led us to believe that this is the right time to do it.”
The Children’s Zoo charged a small admission fee, which has been lifted since the zoo’s June reopening, but the fee did not cover the cost of running it. About a third of the zoo’s 3 million guests a year visit the Children’s Zoo, according to exit surveys. Zoo staff members have taken salary reductions, and the zoo has cut travel and postponed some construction projects as it cut the budget by more than $21 million.
The Children’s Zoo opened June 14, 1969, as the Charles H. Yalem Children’s Zoo. It was the vision of then-zoo director Marlin Perkins to connect children with animals. Admission was 25 cents, and it included a nursery for baby animals and Carolyn the baby elephant. Gyo Obata designed the space, saying he wanted to create a children’s space, “not something sentimentalized or corny like most children’s zoos.” It was expanded and reopened in 1998 as the Emerson Children’s Zoo.
The zoo often gets job applications that include the applicant’s childhood photo with a goat in the goat yard.