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The Animals of Early Elitch Gardens


January 30, 2015 by Pamela Nowak

During its first decades of operation, Elitch’s Gardens was renowned for its animal menagerie. This was due not only to the variety of animals but to their personalities. Mary Elitch Long had a way with animals and raised many of them from babies. To the public, they seemed like pets and the world embraced them.

Even prior to the decision to open the Gardens to the public, Mary was busy collecting animals. She and John Elitch had become friends with several circus owners who gifted Mary with baby animals not needed for their shows. Mary doted on them and they on her. Collectors from around the world knew Mary was interested in expanding her zoo and brought her many of her more exotic animals.

Hearing that “a woman who runs a zoo” in Denver wanted such animals, a sea captain with a cargo of seals stopped in the city and Mary was summoned to the train station. When she arrived, Captain Mullett introduced her to a group of seals, whom Mary referred to as forlorn and homesick. She immediately chose the most pathetic one of the bunch, vowing to give it lots of love and attention. The seal was soon transferred to a pen and tank at the Gardens. That night, Mary was awakened by cries and barks. Thinking the poor little seal was frightened in its new home, she hurried to tend to it and discovered she now had two seals! Mary later wrote that the new mother seemed to be voicing her delight while the baby was protesting the cold.

Learning this was the first baby seal born in a zoo, Mary decided to hold a contest to name the new residents. Local newspapers caught hold of the story and challenged every child in the city to offer names. Mary later said it seemed like every child in Denver did! The winning names were Celia and Cellina. But the train journey from California had been hard on Celia and neither seal was healthy. Mary bottle fed the baby since Celia was not able to provide enough nourishment but the baby seal never gained strength and died. Its mother was heartbroken and its cries of grief, said Mary, were human-like. The mother seal then plunged to the bottom of the pool and died as well.

One of Mary’s first animals was an albino water buffalo named Kelly. Because Kelly could not see well and loved humans, he was often allowed to wander the park. One day, he approached workers who were repairing a platform over a 25-foot well. Kelly ventured too close and fell into the well. It took hours to haul him out; success was finally achieved when Mary suggested lowering a small wooden platform into the well. After many tries, Kelly finally stepped onto it and was pulled up.

Mary also had an elephant named Jess. Jess assisted John and Mary by helping clear tree stumps and move small buildings as they prepared to open the Gardens to the public. Mary coaxed her by walking ahead of her with a bag of peanuts.

Also among Mary’s first animals were lions. She typically bottle-fed them as cubs and cared for them until they became too big to play with safely. Once grown, she gave them to other zoos. It wasn’t long before other zoos sought her out and she became known as a supplier. In the early days, she refused to sell them. Eventually, she did so. One of these lions, named Anna Schilling (after Mary’s sister) was acclaimed as the finest lion in captivity.

But she also kept a few grown lions of her own. Gladys was great friends with a mastiff dog named George who often shared her cage. The two slept and ate together and Gladys was restless whenever George left the cage. In 1896, the unlikely pair rode in a Denver parade together. Rex, one of Mary’s favorites, was the model for the stone lions at the entrance to the Chicago Arts Institute. When another of her favorites, Ed, died, Mary was hear-broken and had his pelt made into a rug for her cottage.

But her lions were still wild animals and care was taken to make sure attendees remembered that fact. On one occasion, family friends were spending the day with Mary when young Nell Brinkley skipped ahead of the group. By the time they caught up with her, she was at the lion cage, perched next to the bars, petting Kit’s head. The keeper quietly lured the lion away.

An early favorite was her ostrich. She harness-trained the animal and had a small two-wheeled cart built. Mary drove the cart around the Gardens and throughout the Highlands neighborhood. Photos of her in the cart appeared in newspapers worldwide. The bird died while Mary was visiting Salt Lake City, after several bicycle salesmen stopped at the park and fed the ostrich celluloid buttons to test the theory that ostriches could digest anything. The bird died seven days later. It was later discovered that the wire pins that held the buttons on the display cards had attached to the lining of the ostrich’s stomach.

A number of native Coloradan animals were also part of the collection at Elitch’s Gardens. Among them were deer, elk, and snakes (including a few rattlesnakes). Though most of the snakes in the snake pit were harmless, they could be frightening. On one occasion, the animal tender forgot to feed them and the hungry reptiles climbed out of the pit, attracted by the picnic fare of those leaning against the snake pit enclosure. When the snakes slithered down the sides of the enclosure and across the picnickers, panic ensued and animal tenders had to rush to the rescue.

Elitch’s Garden’s naughtiest monkey was named Dude. He had a habit of begging for peanuts, which everyone loved. However, when a lady with a hat bent down to offer the treat, he would steal the hat and scamper up a tree. Once there, he would pluck the decorations from the hat and shred them. Dude was finally restricted to his cage for his behavior rather than allowed to roam the park.

Mary’s black bears were among the delights at Elitch’s Gardens. She made a daily show of feeding them and actually went into the bear pit to do so and sometimes danced with them. Her favorite bears were Sam and Dewey. They were released from their pit every evening and allowed to roam the park. Sometimes, they would lumber past visitors to go to her cottage door, where they would stand on their hind legs and beg to be admitted. Mary would open the door with a flourish and feed them.

Sam took such a liking to actor Frederick Perry that he followed the man around the park. Perry did not return Sam’s affection and park employees had to lure Sam away when they found Perry halfway up a fence in an effort to avoid Sam’s attention. Daisy, a less docile bear, once escaped the bear pit and made her way to Mary’s cottage. Unlike Sam and Dewey, she was not content to beg at the door. She made her way into Mary’s kitchen and lunged at Mary, pinning her against the sideboard. Thinking fast, Mary grabbed a bowl of sugar and slowly set it on the floor. Daisy couldn’t resist and went for the treat. Mary escaped and quickly found a keeper to take the bear back to the pit.

Sam and Dewey, though, were always welcome at Mary’s door. Unfortunately, Dewey escaped the pit while Mary was away on her honeymoon with Tom Long. He went to door of the Cottage and didn’t understand when Mary failed to answer her door. The confused animal pawed at the windows, cutting his paws so badly that he bled to death.

It’s easy to see how delightful such animals were to those who attended the Gardens in the early years. I had a delightful time researching them and couldn’t resist including some of them in Escaping Yesterday. Readers will discover the ostrich and bears with key roles in the story!


Please join me next week as I explore vaudeville—the variety show style that was the root of the Elitch Gardens theatre. Each Friday, I will blog about some aspect of Elitch Gardens, early Denver, or other topics related to my next novel, Escaping Yesterday. In between, I will post small factoids on my Facebook page. You can join me there and I love new friends (

Due for release in September 2015, Escaping Yesterday is set in Elitch’s Gardens, in 1905, and follows the story of Lottie Chase. Lottie is willing to take any risk to save her daughter from their abusive uncle. Stranded in Denver, Lottie meets Caleb Hudson, manager at Elitch’s Gardens amusement park, who sees her as a manipulative huckster. Caleb, a veteran suffering from PTSD, craves the tranquility of the park’s gardens. Lottie brings anything but peace as she seeks to convince the owners to add thrill rides so she can collect the sales commission and support her daughter. Neither anticipates their growing passion, common demons, or the dangers they will face as they confront their pasts and free their love.


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