Squawk Like an Animal

While many of us know that George Booth’s acquisition of a mineral collection formed the nucleus of the Institute of Science, who knew that Cranbrook once maintained a zoo? In 1929, Cranbrook’s “Natural History Museum of the [Cranbrook] Foundation” was established (it was the pre-cursor to the Institute of Science) with naturalist W. Bryant Tyrrell as the director. In addition to the mineral collection, Cranbrook’s “modern scientific” museum also had a small collection of taxidermied birds and mammals which were housed in what is now the Academy of Art administration building. A workshop was set up in the basement which doubled as a preparation space and classroom where Tyrrell taught Cranbrook School boys about natural history. Tyrrell was also instrumental in designing the science portion of Cranbrook’s first exhibition space.

When the first science building (designed by George Booth) was constructed in late 1930 on Sunset Hill, plans were made for a small zoo which would eventually house smaller mammals, reptiles, and amphibians of the Great Lakes Region in “pens of modern design.” With Tyrrell’s experience as a taxidermist and naturalist at both the Field Museum in Chicago and the Detroit Children’s Museum, Cranbrook’s Natural History Museum found itself the recipient of live raccoons, snakes, frogs, and even a mother skunk and her babies.

Feeding Shelter, Mar 1930. W. Bryant Tyrrell, photographer. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

Soon, the informal Cranbrook zoo spilled out of the rear of the new building and down into the small ravine behind it. Temporary cages for the animals were placed along the edges of the ravine, and were of considerable interest not only to the Cranbrook School boys but also to the general public. The first issue of the Institute’s Newsletter (November 1931) stated that “the zoo is growing rapidly, and is beginning to achieve quite professional proportions with the addition this month of a wildcat, red fox, several weasels, and three white rats. The rats were loaned by [student] J. O’Connor of Cranbrook School.”

Cranbrook School boys with flying squirrels, May 1930. W. Bryant Tyrrell, photographer. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives

However, not all were so enamored with the idea of live animals including George Booth, especially when a black snake was found in the hallway by one of the secretaries who fainted in fright! And, in fact, the Institute did not have the resources to support a really good zoo. Ultimately, several factors contributed to the demise of the short-lived zoo including a new curator for the museum (which led to Tyrrell’s resignation in June 1931) and the formal establishment of the Institute of Science in 1932. The national-wide financial crisis and the Bank Holiday of 1933 put a final end to Cranbrook’s brief foray into zookeeping.

Leslie S. Edwards, Head Archivist

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