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Chaffee Zoo: Endangered Zoo List

Posted by RickH · November 18th, 2003 · 8 Comments

"Doc" Chaffee & Friend
“Doc” Chaffee & Friend

Today’s front page of The Fresno Bee tells the sad story that poor leadership and lack of will at the Chaffee Zoological Gardens is finally catching up with them.

Before going on, I should point out a potential bias on my part: My wife is Denise Chaffee, daughter of the late Dr. Paul S. Chaffee, affectionately known in his day as “Doc.”

Since many people probably no longer even know who “Doc” Chaffee was — as bewildering as it seems, I’ve searched long and hard and failed to find his name mentioned anywhere on the Chaffee Zoo website other than in the name of the zoo itself — here’s a little background….

“Doc” came to Fresno in the early-to-mid-1950s after two years as a veterinarian in Chicago. He took a small collection of animals and turned it into a medium-sized zoo. “Doc” served on various commissions of the American Zoo and Aquarium Association (AZA), including the Accreditation Commission. (This makes it all the more ironic that the zoo may be about to lose its accreditation.) During his term as President of the AZA, he was oversaw some important programs, including the development of a standardized breeding loan agreement. In 1990, he was the recipient of the AZA’s highest honor the R. Marlin Perkins award — in zoological circles, this is the equivalent of the “Oscar.”

"Doc" Chaffee, Baby Tiger & Little Denise Chaffee, circa. 196
“Doc” Chaffee, Baby Tiger & Little Denise Chaffee, circa. 1960

“Doc” was just one example of all that is good about Fresno. He worked tirelessly, traveling to acquire giraffes and elephants, and building relationships with other zoos for animal exchanges and breeding programs. The Chaffees raised baby apes and tigers in their own home. Dr. Chaffee worked so blind people could “see” the animals and taught other zoos to do the same! Fresno can be proud of the historical impact of his service on various AZA boards, including those relating to the ethical treatment of animals. A California State Parks program the “Dr. Paul Chaffee Zoological Program” provides almost $6 million for zoo development, rehabilitation, and restoration, and another $385,000 for cities, counties, non-profits, and California Indian tribes to care for injured animals.

Almost two years ago now, I personally submitted a written proposal to Ralph Waterhouse for a plan to leverage the Internet for fundraising purposes, to enhance community involvement with the Chaffee Zoo and to educate children. (One of my favorite ideas involved what I called “the Kopi Sotiropulos approach” to getting families involved.) In developing the plan, I made preliminary inquiries of local businesses and spoke to representatives of larger companies (like Microsoft and Sprint) to see what, if anything, they would be willing to donate. I knew that the plan would not be cheap without community buy-in so I obtained tentative commitments both for potential donations or reductions of prices for hardware and software. I also worked out a plan that would help provide ongoing maintenance at next-to-no cost to the Chaffee Zoo itself. (Details are available in the plan, which you can read here.)

After several initial meetings, the best I could detect was lukewarm interest; frankly, I had the feeling my ideas were either not understood or not wanted. Not too long thereafter, I entered law school. Since the management at the Zoo did not appear to be interested and my time was limited, after several fruitless meetings I simply abandoned the idea.

Where would the Chaffee Zoo be today if someone with a little vision were running the place?

With almost no serious advertising efforts (and in spite of less-than-stellar exhibits), the Chaffee Zoo maintains a yearly customer base of nearly half-a-million people. The newspaper reported this as “stagnant.” And perhaps it is, when you think in terms of year-to-year growth. But think of it: nearly half a million people visit the Chaffee Zoo each year in spite of limited funding, limited advertising and limited vision on the part of the management.

I ask again: Where would the Chaffee Zoo be today if someone with a little vision were running the place?

The Chaffee Zoological Society does have a donation page

The Chaffee Zoological Gardens phone number is (559) 498-2671

Click Here to Email the Chaffee Zoological Gardens

The “snail mail” address is:

Chaffee Zoological Gardens of Fresno
894 West Belmont Avenue
Fresno, California 93728

You can probably mail donations there if you wish to use a check instead of a credit card and/or if you are uncomfortable with their online payment system.

Categories: Fresno-Clovis

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8 responses so far ↓

  • 1 sonia // Dec 29, 2003 at 9:57 pm

    i am only 17 years old and dont work but if i could help i would truly do it, someday i would like to be a veterinarian and i hope to also some day visit your zoo. i really hope that many people who can help you do it and i hope that the zoo becomes economical stable once again i really care for those litte cute animals so i wish you the best in your mission to collect donations. hopefully people will see how much you need their help.

  • 2 Kathleen // Sep 18, 2004 at 1:14 pm

    I live in Fresno, and I go to the Zoo all the time. All this contraversy is sprouting up. Everyone in the world has their own idea on what would be best for the zoo.
    I want to know what does the family want? The Chaffee’s, the Falks, and Eldon Blocker’s relations. There were many great people behind the Zoo and Doc was a big part in it. I just wanted to know.
    The media is blindsiding everyone. I saw an interview with one of the Chaffee family members, and he didn’t support Measure Z. [Editor’s Note: My wife, Denise Chaffee, daughter of “Doc” Chaffee, says, “Ask what the name of this family member is. As far as I know, we all support Measure Z.”] He wanted to fix the place up yet said it wasn’t a good idea to expand it. That’s all I heard form any of the envolved founding families and only once. Even if expansion is not part of the plan, if there is extra $ it will be spent on “boosting” the Zoo.

    Please email me or something I really would like to know if you have any information to offer.

    Thank you

  • 3 Denise Chaffee // Sep 18, 2004 at 1:45 pm


    I can’t speak for the rest of my family though I do believe we all support Measure Z. Just last week my niece, Kaye Chaffee, and my step-mother, Jean Chaffee, separately wrote letters to the Editor of the Fresno Bee thanking all the people who support the zoo and reminding others of the great need the zoo has.

    Jean has written a children’s book about Nosey the Elephant and a portion of each sale goes directly to the Zoo Maintainance Fund. She has been on the news and in the newspaper many times in support of Measure Z. In many ways, she is the family spokeswoman in this matter and I believe she represents us well.

    Even though my father was not a “founder” of the zoo, the family has a great interest in seeing that all my father did for the zoo and the community does not end up for nothing.

    My childhood is filled with fond remembrances of the Zoo and all its wonderful inhabitants. I can still hear my father tell me as we walked along the winding paths of the Zoo, that we, the people, are the stewards of the Earth. We can protect the Earth and all the things that live here or we can destroy it all. It’s up to us.

    Now, it’s the same with the Zoo. The people can save it or let it slip away.

    I’m voting yes on Measure Z and I hope you do, too!

  • 4 Kathleen // Sep 18, 2004 at 3:29 pm

    Ok, it was the media at fault, they mixed up names. I called and fixed it after doing some extensive research online. Just wanted to double check. Sorry, for them mix up.

  • 5 Valerie // Jul 22, 2005 at 6:07 am

    Hello….I am going to the Zoo today to show my 2 year old son all the animals he has been learning about. I love all animals and want to raise him with the same love towards animal life. It truly does bother me that Doctor Chaffee is not recognized on the website, as he should be and most certainly earned that much. I have lived in Clovis/Sanger area since I was three and don’t really know the story behined the “Chaffee Zoo” or how it received the name. Does the Zoo offer the history and its founder at the park? If they do not something should be done about sharing the story behind “Doc” and his passion for all creatures. I would also like to add with all the crime and horrible things that take place in society today it just angered me to learn that our Zoo as positive and educational that it is for our youth even be in question in keeping open. I find it offensive we even needed to vote. That just goes to show if the “right” kind of people were running this city and state for that matter, it just would have been priority and taken care of no matter what. After all Animals make the world go round and I feel blessed that we have a Zoo, this City has too many Movie theaters as it is…Gods Blessings~VGB

  • 6 Z Grapes, Zeh Are Really Sour // Sep 15, 2008 at 4:19 am

    […] You’d think people who claim to support culture in Fresno wouldn’t be quite so myopic. And who says our zoo won’t ever be a world-class institution? Do the folks at Famous Fresno even know anything about what our Zoo used to be known for, how far it’s come, and what Doc’s accomplishments wer… […]

  • 7 A Colorful Past | So Shoot Me! // Dec 29, 2013 at 12:50 pm

    […] a tiger cub, and my wife as a small child. My wife’s dad was “Doc” Chaffee, about whom I’ve written elsewhere. (I am happy to report the Zoo is doing much better these days.) Yes, the final product is the […]

  • 8 Laura B // May 27, 2020 at 9:19 pm

    Are the photos from this article archived somewhere still? I am amazed that there is nothing much available online about Dr. Chaffee. I’m a third grade teacher and I thought it would be fun for my class to learn about the man behind the name. Aside from a minor mention on the zoo website and zero photos, this is the only info I’ve been able to find about him. If you happen to have the photos archived too somewhere, please let me know. Thanks!

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