Where the Wild Things Aren’t: History of the Nay Aug Zoo
Queenie, Nay Aug Zoo’s first elephant, is led into her enclosure in 1924. Photo courtesy of the Lackawanna Historical Society
From the Nay Aug Zoo’s inception in 1920, it was the definition of a literal concrete jungle. Until 1989, the Nay Aug Zoo was home to exotic animals that one would not expect to see in Scranton. It was a source of Scranton pride.
During its heyday from the 1930s to the 60s, the Nay Aug Zoo was teeming with 500 daily visitors who came to see the nearly 200 animals it housed. From Tilly the elephant to Joshua the donkey, the zoo animals quickly became local superstars for children and adults alike.
However, with the 1966 passing of the Animal Welfare Act and the growing wave of animal activism throughout the 70s and 80s, the Nay Aug Zoo came under fire for its inadequate conditions. Problems started in 1963 when the Humane Society of Lackawanna County brought the zoo’s faulty heating system and subpar enclosures to the public’s attention. During that same year, an elk killed a baby elk, a monkey escaped and bit a zoo worker and two lion cubs were killed by their mother.
The timeline of tragedies didn’t stop there. A bear cub was mauled by two adult bears in 1964. Later that same year, a 75-year-old worker was killed by a bull elk. In 1966, a baboon was found dead after being hit with a metal bar. A 4-day-old alligator escaped and was fatally shot and a mountain lion was let out of its cage in 1967. That same year, Princess Penny the elephant choked on a toy that was thrown into her enclosure. In the early 1970s, a white deer had been killed by humans, and two boys released black bears from their den.
In 1983, the Nay Aug Zoo’s scandals and shortcomings were shown on a national level, as the Humane Society of the United States ranked it as one of the nation’s most substandard zoos. Sue Pressman, director of captive wildlife protection for the Humane Society, called the zoo “archaic” and argued that the exhibits in Scranton were so “outdated and sterile that there can be no understanding of the animals’ natural behaviors.”
With the relocation of Toni the elephant to the National Zoo in 1989, the Nay Aug Zoo closed its doors. This news was disheartening for the Scranton locals, who had an emotional connection to the zoo, but was a cause for celebration for animal activists nationwide.
The Nay Aug Zoo opened its doors again in 2003, as a wildlife rehabilitation center. Called the Genesis Wildlife Center, it aimed to be a sanctuary for previously abused animals. But with the lack of funding or modern enclosures, the rehabilitation center met the same fate as the Nay Aug Zoo. The rehab center struggled to maintain the bare minimum standards for an animal care facility set by the government under the 1966 Animal Welfare Act.
In 2009, the zoo that was once the pride of Scranton closed for good after Time Magazine listed the Genesis Wildlife Center as the 4th most abusive zoo in the United States.
Watch a video history here