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Your Key To The Zoo

The Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden brought back the Zoo Key in 2020, though I can only imagine the audio programs are a lot more advanced nowadays.

Patented in 1959, the Zoo Key system was invented by Bruce Sedley, in response to a request from William Penn Mott of the Oakland, California Parks Department. Originally known as Talking Storybooks, (and implemented with a different shaped key), the first version of the system was installed at Children’s Fairyland in 1958. Predating the Talking Storybooks, Children’s Fairyland had a similar system based on coin-operated record players, which would frequently break down. Sedley devised a more reliable implementation using the more modern magnetic tape system, with the audio program recorded on a tape loop. The concept was based on message repeater devices Sedley was using in his recording studio. The first units produced used Sedley’s voice; later production switched to using celebrity voices.

The Talking Storybook system was installed at various zoos and were stationed in front of selected animal enclosures. The inventor cleverly called his elephant key a “Trunkey.” Visitors at the zoo could purchase a Zoo Key and use it to unlock the recorded narrative inside each storybook. A 1 or 2 minute message would explain the native habitat of the animal along with unique characteristics of each animal. Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo had 40 Talking Storybooks and keys were $1.50 in the ’70s – not sure what they may have run in previous years, but a $1.50 in the ’70s was pretty steep and probably the reason we didn’t have one.

The Woodland Park Zoo saw its beginning as a small collection of animals put together by mill owner and real estate developer, Guy C. Phinney. Today it has over 300 species and 1,090 animal specimens. It has 35 endangered and 5 threatened animal species. Learn more about Woodland Park Zoo here >

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