This is an article from the Fall 2014 issue of LSA Magazine. To read more stories like this, click here.

There are no white tigers—or other exotic animals—in Ann Arbor. But for more than 30 years, a Michigan menagerie of native mammals, turtles, and snakes populated a small but thriving zoo on the U-M campus.

It was a modest zoo. 

Built in 1929, the “Animal House,” as it came to be called, was tucked behind the Alexander G. Ruthven Museums Building on campus, where the museum’s parking lot and east wing addition now sit. The brick, hexagonal building held six enclosures that formed a ring around a central room, where graduate students and staff prepared food for the animals that lived there. A narrow moat, guardrail, and chain-link fence surrounded the cages. A rotating cast of as many as four foxes, six raccoons, two porcupines, four skunks, four black bears, three coyotes, a badger, and possibly otters, bobcats, and opossums occupied the animal pens, although accounts vary for the latter animals. Even a wolverine, the byproduct of football coach Fielding Yost’s failed attempt at showcasing a team mascot at home games, wound up at the zoo early on. 

Within a year of being built, the zoo expanded to include an enclosure for turtles and snakes adjacent to the main Animal House. Up to nine turtle species and seven snake species inhabited about 210 square feet of concrete equipped with a shallow pool and running water, all surrounded by a wire fence. Missing was the massasauga, Michigan’s only venomous rattlesnake. Perhaps rightly so. If one had escaped, as live mice meant for snake snacks sometimes did, then U-M would have had a serious problem. 


The U-M zoo sits in a courtyard just behind the Alexander G. Ruthven Museums Building. A chain-link fence encircles the mammal house, while the Ruthven Museum stands at the far left of the photo. Photo courtesy of Bentley Historical Library

Funding for the zoo came from an anonymous donor, along with an appropriation from the Board of Regents. The aim was to expose kids to Michigan fauna and use the zoo as a teaching tool in conjunction with the museum. As a bonus, researchers could study animal behavior. When the Animal House acquired a pair of four-week-old bear cubs in 1933, the zoo grew in popularity, and museum staff obtained valuable information by measuring the growth rate and development of the young bears. 

For more than 30 years, thousands of people visited the zoo, sometimes hundreds each day, strolling through walkways in the surrounding courtyard. But in 1962, the Michigan Daily published the news that the zoo was slated to close under the headline, “Zoo Doomed to Make Way For Biosystematics Center.” The Animal House was dismantled, its resident creatures relocated from their campus home. Researchers ended up studying contemporary and evolutionary biodiversity in the east addition of the museum, at the very spot where live animals had once attracted local visitors.


Cover photo courtesy of A. K. Stevens. Video by Rob Hess. Video footage courtesy of Bentley Historical Library (851831-AF91)