There was a time when Indianapolis was crawling with penguins. No one’s sure why there were so many – nothing as obvious as the Department of Natural Resources or the EPA granting them protected status. Just black and white birds waddling everywhere in a landlocked Midwestern state. You’d never know it to look around the city today. The only sign of the king penguin infestation of the 1970s is a trio of brass statues, displayed in what’s left of the old Glendale Mall, roped off like a museum exhibit. Some believe that’s the spot where it all began.
In 1965, Lowell Nussbaum, considered by many to be the “Father of the Indianapolis Zoo,” was expanding his empire by building a modern shopping mall on the northeast side of Indianapolis near the Broad Ripple artists’ village. The mall featured anchor stores L.S. Ayres and Block’s, but Nussbaum wanted something that would set Glendale apart as a destination, something that would mean more visitors – and more sales – in the stores.
“The guy was a real innovator,” says Sam Espich, professor of retail management at Purdue University. “He was the first to bring the spirit of a downtown shopping district to a single building. I don’t think you can overstate his impact on the retail world.”
That innovation was perhaps never more evident than when Nussbaum proposed opening the city’s first zoo in the spacious courtyard of the outdoor mall. What some on the city council labeled impractical, odd, or even ridiculous was soon the biggest draw on the side of town previously best known for its rocket-shaped slides at Broad Ripple Park.
In its initial manifestation, Nussbaum’s small menagerie featured a pair of tiger cubs, several tortoises, an Asian elephant, a buffalo, and three penguins. Admission was free, and soon the Glendale Children’s Zoo was packed Monday through Saturday. Highlights included an elephant show and rides, as well as tortoise races during which children rode on the shells of the slow giants.
“One of my favorite memories of that little zoo is the tortoise rides,” says Bernice Schmidt, 75, a retired elementary school teacher. “My grandkids can’t believe they actually used to let us do that!”
Schmidt’s grandchildren aren’t the only ones.
“Back in the day, people were much more interested in animals for entertainment. They didn’t worry themselves about humane treatment or conservation,” says Madeline Bright, president of what is now called the Indianapolis Zoo. “We kind of cringe at some of the things Nussbaum’s people did then, but it was a different time.”
Income from the mall, as well as donations and memberships, paid for the care of the animals. Nussbaum added to the funds with various promotions, such as when he launched an Indy 500-themed contest in May 1967 asking visitors to vote for their favorite animals by dropping $1 into a container outside each enclosure. The “winning” animal would be announced during the prerace festivities at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
That Sunday morning, after the singing of “Back Home Again in Indiana” and “America the Beautiful,” Nussbaum stepped out onto the stage with three waddling companions and announced that Indianapolis had chosen the king penguins as their zoo favorites. The crowd roared almost as loudly for them as it did when A.J. Foyt drove into the winner’s circle a few hours later and gulped down the traditional milk.
Nussbaum indulged in a bit of Memorial Day anthropomorphizing when he yelled out to some 250,000 spectators, “Indianapolis loves the king penguins, and the king penguins love the Indianapolis 500!”
Despite the positive reaction on race day, Nussbaum was caught off guard when the mall customer service office was flooded with calls Tuesday morning asking to schedule appearances by him and the tuxedoed zoo ambassadors. Over the next year, Nussbaum worked with city officials to make plans for a free-standing zoo on the city’s growing East Side, allowing him to donate many of his animals and expand the penguin exhibit at Glendale.
“I guess you could say we have Nussbaum’s greed to thank for one of this city’s most popular attractions,” the late Mayor Alexander Martindale said in a 1980 interview, shortly before his death. “And for the penguin problem that soon followed.”
Business owners throughout Indianapolis soon were caught up in the frenzy. Everything from used car lots to appliance stores were boasting pony rides, talking parrots, and farm animal petting zoos. But most popular by far were the penguins, maybe because they so obviously were not in their native habitat. There was something exotic about a creature one usually could see only on television shows filmed amid ice and snow.
However, not all businesses had the facilities or means to provide for their little publicity engines. More and more often, Animal Control was being called out on tips that penguins were being kept in deplorable conditions.
“I can remember one really bad call we got,” says Nancy Simon, 63, who worked in Animal Control at the time. “We walked into this grocery and found out the owner had his penguin locked in an employee bathroom with a bucket of rotten fish and a dog bowl filled with dirty water. It was unbelievable.”
For the next 10 years, there was an alarming increase in the feral penguin population all over the city. Birds would block area roads and defile people’s lawns. Several residents were attacked when they unwittingly stumbled across a nesting area. White River, Eagle Creek, and Geist were all but taken over by the flightless birds.
“I know they’re cute, but they were destroying our parks,” DNR Chief David Henderson says. “We had to do something.”
Henderson was part of a team that negotiated with the EPA for a federal permit allowing hunters to bag an unlimited number of penguins. A special license and workshop were required for the hunt, but authorities admit there was poaching.
“We couldn’t be everywhere all the time,” he said. The problem was so severe that code enforcement wasn’t a high priority.
“We seriously were up to our necks in penguins.”
There were a few ecology-minded Hoosiers who dedicated themselves to protecting the non-native species. After all, they said, it wasn’t the penguins’ fault that humans introduced them to the area.
“It was just another example of man creating a problem and then killing to fix it,” according to Judith Hollady, Indiana PETA coordinator. “Penguins were not the problem. We were.”
But Henderson says the penguin sympathizers only made things worse. He alleges that every time the DNR thought it had exterminated the feral population, PETA would release more into the wild.
Holladay says the accusation is false.
No matter who is telling the truth, every elementary school child in the state knows what happened next. The state legislature, heavily influenced by the DNR, ordered the immediate slaughter of all remaining penguins in Indiana. And that included Nussbaum’s beloved birds.
“When he heard the news, it very nearly killed him,” says granddaughter Elizabeth Nussbaum Taylor, 47. “A week later, he was in the hospital with a heart attack.”
While Nussbaum recuperated at Methodist Hospital, authorities confiscated and killed all of the Glendale penguins. Taylor says her grandmother couldn’t bear to break the news to her sick husband. She waited until he came home two weeks later to tell him.
“Grandma said he broke down and cried,” Taylor says. “He never got over it.”
Nussbaum refused to reopen the courtyard animal kingdom. Instead, he converted it into a park and playground for shoppers’ children. In the center, though, he placed a lasting tribute.
Gathered around a small silver ball were three large brass king penguins, frozen in various poses of play. Nussbaum could often be seen sitting on a nearby bench, watching children as they scaled the shiny statues. At the end of the day, Taylor says, her grandfather would polish away all the little fingerprints on the brass, refusing to let his employees do it until he became too ill to leave his home.
The mall fell on hard times in the 1980s. Developers tried to bring back shoppers, first by enclosing the mall and then by converting part of the structure into a community center, but people wanted to spend their money at newer, trendier spots to the north. When it was finally demolished in 1991, most people thought of it as only an eyesore. Nussbaum died a year later.
What rose in its place was just as unsightly but at least assured of economic survival: a combination Sam’s Club/Golden Corral/Tobacco Town. And somewhere under all that retail square footage, three brass king penguins keep watch for Lowell Nussbaum.
Dawn Fable is a poet, freelance writer, and high school English teacher. Her work has appeared in The Tipton Poetry Journal, Fountain Square Arts Council Masterpiece In a Day, and The Midwest Quarterly. She lives in Indianapolis.