Book uses history, photos to cover Riverbanks Zoo’s first 40 years

jholleman@thestate.comNovember 17, 2013 


    “Riverbanks Zoo and Garden: Forty Wild Years,” By Palmer “Satch” Krantz and



    Jacobs; The University of South Carolina Press


    See photos featured in the book; look for a link with this story at

“Riverbanks Zoo and Garden: Forty Wild Years” intentionally is a hybrid – as much a history book as a coffee-table book.

Satch Krantz, the zoo’s CEO and co-author of the book with Monique Blanchette Jacobs, said University of South Carolina Press editors suggested the format when they approached him originally about the book project. That matched his preferred method of attack.

“They suggested more than a coffee-table book, and this is exactly what we were hoping to get,” Krantz said.

The book is available only at the zoo’s gift shops for the first few weeks, but should be more broadly available after the first of the year.

If you love Riverbanks Zoo and Garden, and lots of people do based on attendance of more than 1 million per year, you’ll enjoy the book. The 40-year history of the zoo is fascinating, especially the heated political battles leading to the formation of the Riverbanks Park Commission and the mercurial actions of the zoo’s first director, John Mehrtens.

“There’s so much about the early days of the zoo that 90 percent of the people who are here now don’t have a clue about,” Krantz said.

Krantz inadvertently started working on the project about five years ago. He decided to put together a short autobiography, not for publication, but for his own family members. When USC Press asked him to write something for the zoo’s 40th anniversary, he mined the information from his autobiographical writings.

Krantz has been at the zoo since before it opened, starting right after finishing school at Clemson. But he learned a few things, and was left with one lingering question, during his research for the book.

He didn’t learn how large a role the Tricentennial Commission – formed to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the state’s founding in 1670 – had in the zoo’s formation. Charleston, Columbia and Greenville each were going to have a major project for the Tricentennial. Columbia leaders at the last minute ditched a zoo plan in favor of renovating the historic Hampton-Preston mansion.

Lexington County legislators were upset that most of the local Tricentennial effort was focused in Columbia, and they introduced legislation to form the Riverbanks Park Commission anyway. The zoo, which eventually was funded by tax dollars from both Richland and Lexington counties, grew from that response.

What’s unclear to Krantz is exactly when, and why, local leaders switched gears from plans for a small petting zoo to a first-class zoological park. Despite going through boxes of old newspaper clippings and meeting minutes, he couldn’t find the exact moment when the plans changed.

The later chapters of the book on the more recent expansions have less intrigue, but those sections are enlivened by short profiles on various species of animals or plants. (To the authors’ credit, even the brief 2009 gorilla escape is covered.)

But the beauty of the book is if you left in on your coffee table and an 8-year-old picked it up, the child could spend 30 minutes looking at the beautiful photographs of zoo animals and plants. Children who know Riverbanks will feel like they’ve taken a quick, effortless trip to the zoo.

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