In the spring of 1961, Robert E. Maytag, grandson of the founder of the Maytag appliance company, called a small group of friends together at his home to discuss the idea of building a zoo in the city of Phoenix. The idea soon took off as Maytag and his “dedicated bunch of amateurs” proceeded to garner support from other Valley leaders. The Arizona Zoological Society held its first meeting on April 27, 1961. “It was a period of delightful, enthusiastic chaos,” recalled Nancy Maytag Love. “We were absolute beginners. We didn’t have any idea what we were getting into, but our enthusiasm and the certainty that we were building a great zoo carried us through every challenge we faced.” Robert Maytag’s unexpected death from pneumonia in March of 1962 at age 38 was nearly the death knell for the zoo. Even the staunchest zoo backers reeled under the blow. Then Nancy Maytag stepped forward, declaring the zoo would be completed on schedule as a memorial to Bob. It was the call to action the community needed. Individuals, families, clubs and companies all came forward with help, giving wherever it was most needed.
“Build the Zoo in ’62!” began gracing buses, delivery trucks, moving vans, shopping carts, grocery bags and vacant buildings. Family memberships were sold for $5.00 a year. Every news reporter, station manager, and radio announcer was hit up for a promotional spot. Social clubs, professional societies, auxiliaries, school groups, unions, sororities and fraternities all felt the pinch. Finally, on November 21, 1962, Nancy Maytag cut the ribbon before a crowd of thousands, officially opening the Maytag Zoo, named in her husband’s honor. With the name changed to the Phoenix Zoo in 1963 to encourage community involvement, the early years of the zoo continued to be a financial struggle. Building the zoo was one thing; keeping it going was another. After Nancy Maytag’s resignation from the Arizona Zoological Society, Earl L. Bimson, a banker, stepped forward to provide the zoo with the strong leadership and stability it needed for the next 13 years. Often credited with saving the Phoenix Zoo during its early years of financial struggles, Earl Bimson successfully negotiated with creditors to restructure or forgive debts. Due to his efforts, the zoo was in the black by 1965.
Other early supporters of the zoo included Eugene and Nina Pulliam, owners of Central Newspapers, Inc., including The Arizona Republic and The Phoenix Gazette. Believing the young zoo needed great leadership to grow and thrive, the Pulliams paid the salary of the zoo’s director for five years as “an “anonymous friend of the zoo”. Under the leadership of Eugene Pulliam, the state news media continued to follow the story of the Phoenix Zoo closely, keeping up public interest and noting with pride every zoo birth and every improvement at the facility. Most gratifying of all, the community itself supported the zoo. From the steady donations of money, goods, services, and labor there was only one conclusion to draw: Robert Maytag’s original premise was true – that the people of Arizona wanted a world class zoo.
Originating with the ambitious vision of a dedicated philanthropist and other community leaders, the Phoenix Zoo has welcomed more than 43 million guests since 1962, fulfilling its mission of providing experiences that inspire people and motivate them to care for the natural world. Beginning in 1962 with Operation Oryx, one of the world’s most successful global wildlife conservation programs, it has become world renowned for its contributions to the field of conservation science. Today, more than 7,000 Arabian oryx exist world-wide, setting a precedent for subsequent successful Phoenix Zoo conservation initiatives involving Black-footed ferrets, Chiricahua leopard frogs, narrow-headed gartersnake, thick-billed parrots, Mexican wolves and many others.
Educational programming has also continued to grow in scope and reputation, beginning with the arts and crafts-based Summer Institute for Children in 1965, to today’s math and science-based ZooLab and Distance Learning programs offered through several Arizona school districts. Born of a spirit of community and the efforts of small group of dedicated volunteers, and carefully nurtured through the support of millions, the Phoenix Zoo has enjoyed a truly remarkable first 50+ years. With your continued support, our next 50 years will inspire millions more, connecting them with the natural world in new and fascinating ways. Arizona Center for Nature Conservation advances the stewardship and conservation of animals and their habitats while providing experiences that inspire people and motivate them to care for the natural world.