Folsom's Animal King
Updated: May 7
Hi, thank you for checking out our new blog, Folsom Unveiled. My name is Kaitlyn Scott and I’m Folsom Historical Society’s historian. Each week I will be highlighting a different topic related to Folsom’s history that not everyone knows about by diving deeper into a place, event, person or piece in our collection.
By now most people with social media have heard of Netflix’s new docuseries Tiger King. While I personally loved the series for its elements of true crime (my favorite genre), I did find that its theme of exploiting animals for monetary gain to be shocking. The treatment of big cats, specifically tigers, made me want to hold my own house cats tighter…which I did…much to their dismay. I have a little gray panther named Tolkien and a mini tiger named Rochester but don’t get me started on talking about my pets because that’s a blog nobody wants to read (if you do though, please feel free to email me because they’re my favorite topic). Before I get too off topic, let’s jump into some local history. Folsomites have been enjoying the Folsom City Zoo Sanctuary since the early 1960s, but did you know its history? Its founder, Gordon Brong, was an amazing man who I think is more deserving of the title “Tiger King” but in reality, was more like the “Animal King”, or as he was more commonly known to residents, “The Dr. Dolittle of Folsom”. For those of you who have watched Tiger King, this blog is to remind you that there can be good relationships between wild animals and humans, and for those who haven’t, to learn more about our local animal sanctuary and the man who started it all.
Gordon Brong and his wife Elsie moved to Folsom so Brong, an ironworker, could work on the Folsom Dam. After his retirement from ironworking, he started working for the city in 1959 as a city park caretaker. He watered the lawns, cleaned up the park, guarded it at night and did general maintenance in exchange for trailer space and utilities. By 1960, Brong was acting Park Superintendent.
In 1961, what would later become the Folsom City Zoo Sanctuary began with a deer named “Danny Boy”. The buck was found crippled and Brong and his wife, Elsie, nursed him back to health. It didn’t take long for word to spread that a deer was now living at the city park and the community came to see the deer stand on his hind legs for carrots.
Despite Brong’s lack of veterinary background, after he rescued and successfully rehabilitated Danny Boy, he soon became known as the go-to man for unwanted or injured animals. Next was Stinky the skunk, a cast-off pet and an injured cougar. In 1963, the wild animal that would establish the Folsom Zoo was given to Brong from the University of California, Davis.
Smokey the bear cub (No, not that Smokey) came to Folsom after intensive plastic surgery on his face and abdominal surgery to repair injuries sustained in a forest fire in Humboldt. Smokey was just a few weeks old when UCD gave him to Brong to nurse back to health. The two bonded quickly and Smokey was soon even more popular with the public than Brong’s other animals.
When Smokey first arrived, Brong and his wife, Elsie cared for him in their trailer while petitioning the city to build an appropriate enclosure for the cub. The city agreed, and Folsom Zoo was born. Brong and the city did not stop there, and money was raised for an even bigger enclosure as well as more appropriate enclosures for the ever-growing list of unwanted or injured animals being sent to Folsom. Smokey was soon joined by Alice the bear, who would become his lifelong mate. Together the pair had 14 cubs, some stayed in Folsom while others were given to appropriate zoos.
The Folsom Zoo gained a reputation for being a “Misfit Zoo” where injured animals could be rehabilitated and sent to other zoos if appropriate or taken care of for life in Folsom. To Brong, the animals were individuals and his bond with them was undeniable. Throughout the 1960s, Brong could be seen driving his truck with Smokey or one of the zoos many other animals in the passenger seat.
Gordon Brong retired from the zoo in the 1980s and today the zoo carries on his legacy of educating the public and caring for rescue animals who have been injured, rejected and rescued from being personal pets.