Brit Ibbotson had never been to Kansas prior to enrolling at Seward County Community College to play baseball last August. He certainly had never visited the Brit Spaugh Zoo in Great Bend.
It may not sound significant that this Maumelle, Ark., college student had not been to the zoo. But, Ibbotson is the great-grandson and namesake of the facility’s founder Brit Spaugh and grew up hearing stories about it.
That changed this past Saturday when he and his mother Dana Ibbotson walked around the zoo’s perimeter in the chilly morning air. They were there before the zoo opened and had to be content with catching a glimpses of the animals from beyond the main fence.
He heard the big cats roar and saw the bison butting heads.
“He was impressed,” said Dana Ibbotson, Spaugh’s granddaughter. She lives in Little Rock, Ark., but made the trek to Great Bend to attend her son’s game with Barton Community College.
“He was surprised,” she said. “He had no concept of what to expect. It was larger than he thought it would be.”
Now, his curiosity has been piqued and he wants to return during zoo hours.
As a child, Brit Ibbotson heard tales of his great-grandfather taking in orphaned animals , hand feeding them and walking into their cages as if they were pets. He’d also seen pictures of the zoo.
Spaugh, a long-time employee of the Great Bend Parks Department who rose to be its director by the 1950s, “decided he would start a zoo,” said Karen Neuforth with the Barton County Historical Society.
This was 1952. Spaugh started with one white-tail deer, added a swan and other animals. “It grew from there. Before they knew it, they had a zoo,” Neuforth said.
Spaugh built most of the cages and enclosures from whatever material he could scrounge or get donated. As a location, he picked land already owned by the city.
Dana Ibbotson had visited the zoo when she was younger. She looked at the changes and improvements being made and approves. “I think it needs it,” she said.
Her grandfather did the best he could with what he had, but times change. “There probably were no guidelines.”
Today, as zoo officials try to earn American Zoo and Aquariums accreditation for the facility, there are extra precautions in place. “They protect us from the animals and the animals from us,” she said.