Dayton history you didn’t know: There was once a zoo at the Art Institute

Petting zoo an innovative draw to museum during Great Depression

Imagine strolling the grounds of the Dayton Art Institute and crossing paths with exotic birds, a pair of donkeys and a monkey named Skipper.

Hard to fathom?

Julia Shaw Patterson Carnell’s gift to Dayton, $2 million for construction of the new Dayton Art Institute, opened in 1930 during the turmoil of the Great Depression.

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Siegfried R. Weng, who at age 25 was the director of the new art musuem when it opened in 1930, was challenged to find a way to draw visitors to the sparsely filled art museum during the gloomy 1930s.

A menagerie of animals, “Weng’s Zoo,” contributed to the answer.

The young director, who believed museums should have a home-like atmosphere, also installed comfortable seating, soft lighting and music. “Dayton’s Living Room,” became the museum’s moniker under his influence.

Exotic Demoiselle cranes, toucans, swans and peacocks roamed outdoors among the statuary and swam in a pool. Inside, gold and blue cockatoos perched on branches next to Asian silk artwork. A macaw named “Old Mac,” who lived in the Chinese Temple, always had a greeting for visitors.

“For the time, it was very innovative,” said Michael Roediger, director of the Dayton Art Institute. “Families, like today, were looking for activities to entertain their children. Children were welcomed to the museum grounds by donkeys, llamas, peacocks, swans and geese.”

Crowds gathered around a cage in a museum gallery to watch the antics of Skipper the monkey, and children watched fish swim in an indoor pond surrounded by colorful birds.

A community-wide contest was held to select a name for the offspring of a pair of Indian Mahratta dwarf donkeys named Coke and Coca-Cola who were gifted to the DAI in the early 1940s.

More than 200 contestants submitted names. Twelve-year-old Shirley Mangas of Dayton came up with the winner – Cokette.

The zoo animals were the subject of frequent newspaper stories. Cedric, a European Fallow deer, was described as “neurotic” in a headline for a 1949 story about his demise due to ulcers.

The ulcers, according to the story, were from eating too much paper:

“Unfortunately, very young visitors to the garden fed him quantities of paper — scraps of drawings were found in his stomach — and it was believed that the arsenic used in the manufacture of some paper causes ulcers.”

Another story, published near Thanksgiving in 1948, reported the Art Institute’s pet wild turkey had gone missing. “You know,” Weng was quoted as saying, “it is getting awfully close to the holiday and we don’t know whether the bird left on his own accord or whether someone took him.”

Roediger said he was a bit surprised to learn the scope of the zoo when he joined the DAI but recalled the fish in the Chinese gallery from his childhood.

“Today’s museum standards for caring for art recommend not exposing the art to environments that include animals, but at the time it was considered an acceptable practice,” said Roediger, who also noted that smoking was once allowed inside.

Weng, the DAI’s longest-serving director, led the museum until 1950. His original ideas helped build the museum’s collection and turn it into a centerpiece of the community.

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