116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Gazzy, a black bear, was born at Bever Park’s modest zoo in Cedar Rapids in 1941.
He wasn’t the first bear to live at the zoo. That honor belonged to Gussie, also a black bear, who arrived at the zoo in 1901, shortly after the zoo opened.
A large cage was created for Gussie, who was labeled a “fun-maker” because she liked to jump at dogs when they walked past and frighten them.
The zoo began around 1900 with the donation of a pair of America eagles from railroad ticket clerk Archie Steece and some deer from J.J. “Budd” Snouffer Jr.
By 1904, Cedar Rapids had established a Bever Park streetcar line to carry visitors to the park. The advertised attractions included a deer park, a big swing, a well house, bandstand, two bridges and “elk, deer, bears, wolves, foxes, monkeys, birds and other zoological specimens.”
At the opening of the zoo’s 1926 season, three brown bears occupied the concrete bear pit along with an old female black bear that rarely ventured from the bear cave.
A black bear named Teddy was donated to the zoo by automobile dealer E.L. MaKibben who got the bear in a car trade. Teddy joined Sunny, a brown bear, in the zoo’s bear pit in 1931. The other brown bear, Buddy, died after being fed too many “treats” tossed by well-meaning visitors.
“Many people think that they are kind to the animals when they feed them,” Park Superintendent William Volz told The Gazette at the time, “but the opposite is true.”
He noted the bears were fed meat each day, and it was better for the bears if visitors ate the peanuts and popcorn themselves.
Bill Volz was the park’s zookeeper in April 1941 when a Gazette photographer snapped a photo of a mother bear and her new cub. Thousands of people flocked to the zoo to catch a glimpse of the cub, who was dubbed “Gazzy” in honor of the newspaper.
The mother bear entertained the crowds gathered on the hillside walk above the bear pit by picking up her cub and rolling backward, giving the cub a ride through the air.
Gazzy’s adventurous life took a dismaying turn when he was 4½ months old. He wandered too close to the tin partition that separated his cage from that of his father. The older bear caught Gazzy’s rear left leg and mauled it so badly it had to be amputated above the knee.
Gazzy slept well after his operation and recovered quickly. He soon became “the most popular animal the city zoo has ever had.”
By the time he was seven months old, Gazzy was learning to be an excellent escape artist.
Placed in a temporary enclosure at the zoo while his cage was being repaired, Gazzy broke his collar and climbed a large tree, out of reach of caretakers. Volz’s attempts to coax him down only resulted in the cub climbing higher.
The fire department came and extended a ladder above the bear, driving him down into the arms of three men who combined efforts to put a new harness on Gazzy.
The next day, Gazzy was free again when a clasp on the harness came loose. Gazzy headed for a tree’s upper branches. This time a zoo attendant, armed with a club, climbed high enough to poke Gazzy until he decided to come down.
The next year, the zoo’s cub trouble tripled when Gazzy was joined by twin siblings. Even so, Gazzy was still the star attraction.
In October 1942, Parks Commissioner Charles Kosek announced that the Bever Park Zoo’s attractions would be drastically reduced because of World War II.
On top of Volz enlisting in the Army, meat rationing was going to severely restrict the zoo’s ability to feed the carnivores. Four bears, four foxes, a wolf and a coyote would have to go, but the zoo would keep the twin bear cubs.
The backlash was immediate. Zoo lovers thought the animals were going to be killed. Offers to take them poured in from San Antonio, Milwaukee and other places.
Kosek finally announced no animals were going to be killed. He said the bison were going to an 800-acre farm in Otley in central Iowa because their zoo enclosure was too small. Two of four elk would be relocated along with nearly 30 goats, five foxes and one wolf.,
Two old bears were leaving, but Gazzy, the cubs and a Canadian bear were staying.
The last mention of Gazzy in The Gazette was a February 1948 story about the birth of a bear cub that was Gazzy’s half-sibling.
In April 1982, Moose and Molly, the last of the black bears at the Bever Park Zoo, were loaded onto trucks to be hauled to new homes when they became too expensive to keep. The zoo’s lions and wolves also were moved to new homes
The aging zoo was becoming financially unsustainable and by 1999 most of the zoo’s animal enclosures had been replaced with picnic areas. The last vestige of exotic animals was the monkey exhibit, which closed in 2003.
Today, Bever Park is home to Old MacDonald’s Farm, a petting farm that includes a waterfowl exhibit.