A small child holding a yellow elephant key, inserting it into a slot on a metal box.
Child operating talking storybook in 2017 using an elephant key.

A zoo key is a large novelty key used to activate talking storybooks at American zoos. These were used by various zoos, largely in the latter half of the 20th century, as part of a system which played audio recordings describing exhibits. The keys were typically made from brightly colored plastic in the shape of animals, although some zoos issued the keys in non-animal shapes.

The first generation of keys were in the shape of an elephant, with the trunk being the blade of the key. This was commonly known as "Trunkey the Elephant" (sometimes spelled Trunky).[1] At the Cleveland Zoo, it was called "Packey".[1]

Installations included zoos in Portland (see Packy), San Francisco, Cleveland, Detroit, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, New Orleans, and New York.[2]

Cover page from US Patent 188.343, titled "Novelty Key". Includes seven drawings of an elephant-shaped key, shown from various views (front, back, side, etc.)
US Patent

Children's Fairyland

The system was invented and patented by Bruce Sedley (1925–2012),[3] in response to a request from William Penn Mott of the Oakland, California, Park Department.[4][5][6] 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.[7]

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.[8] The concept was based on message repeater devices Sedley was using in his recording studio.[9] The first units produced used Sedley's voice; later production switched to using celebrity voices.[10]

As of April 2018, the system is still in use there, with new "Magic Keys" available for purchase at $3.[11]

A version of the Talking Storybook system is still being produced as of 2020, manufactured by The Talking Storybook Company, in Santa Cruz, California.[12][13] Sedley later went on to invent a magnetic door key, an early version of room keys commonly used in hotels.[1]

San Francisco

The San Francisco Zoo was one of the first customers, installing 40 units in 1959.[14] It was at this point that the "Talking Storybook" name was first used.[10] The storyboxes played the "All the animals at the zoo are jumping up and down for you" jingle.[10] This tune was also used by other zoos, as in a TV commercial for the Philadelphia Zoo.[15]


The system was installed at the Philadelphia Zoo circa 1959 and was prominently featured in a TV commercial of the era.[15][note 1] This original installation was removed in 2007; it was brought back by popular demand in 2020 as part of the "Creatures of Habitat" exhibit which features life-size lego animal sculptures and 20 newly installed storyboxes, which offer audio in both English and Spanish.[16] Keys are available for sale, but heirloom keys from the original system will also work.[17][18] The new system encompasses some environment-friendly features; the storybooks are solar powered, and the new keys are made from recycled plastic. The new keys are available in lion, bear, and gorilla shapes.[19]


The Cleveland Zoo had the original system installed from 1959 to 1980. The scripts for the audio recordings were written by Fletcher Reynolds, the director of the zoo. According to various sources, recordings were either done by professional voice actors in Hollywood or by local television performer, Linn Sheldon.[1][20] The system was re-installed in 2017, named ZooKey, with sponsorship from KeyBank, as part of the Cleveland Metroparks' 100th anniversary.[21] The installation includes over two dozen stations.[22]


The Sacramento Zoo issues keys in multiple colors and animal shapes. As of 2011, keys were available as orange tigers, gold giraffes, and yellow lions.[23]

Other locations

System longevity

Keys were sold with the intent that children would hold on to them and bring them back on subsequent visits to the zoo. This has continued to be true over the many years that the system has been in use. There are 50-year-old keys which still work in modern-day storybook devices.[24]

Children's Fairyland executive director C.J. Hirschfield noted, "I constantly hear from 30-, 40- and 50-somethings, 'I still have my key!' And I always reply, 'And it still works!'"[25]

Keys as memorabilia

Old keys have become collectable, with typical keys being worth anywhere from a few dollars to $225 for highly prized and rare examples.[19] One notable collector, Mark Lyons, got his first key at the Detroit Zoo during a grade school field trip. The advent of eBay led to him collecting the keys and he estimates he has 350–400 keys from various zoos.[19]


  1. ^ Sources differ on the installation date. The Philadelphia Inquirer states 1960, but the YouTube video shows the system and claims to be from the 1950s.


  1. ^ a b c d MacKeigan, Judy (10 June 2015). "Door Keys and Zoo Keys". Cleveland Metroparks. Retrieved 7 February 2020.
  2. ^ "Adventures in Childhood Nostalgia | Cleveland Zoo Key". A Continuous Lean. 25 January 2010. Retrieved 8 February 2020.
  3. ^ Wing, Kevin (February 2012). "In Memoriam: Bruce "Skipper" Sedley" (PDF).
  4. ^ US USD188343S, "Novelty key", published 5 July 1960 
  5. ^ Brunson, Chris (8 April 2015). "Trunkey The Elephant, Old Cookie Jars, Junk Drawers, Found Curiosities | Moo Dog Press". www.moodogpress.com. Archived from the original on 14 June 2016. Retrieved 6 April 2018.
  6. ^ "Bay Area Radio Museum – Bruce Sedley". bayarearadio.org. Retrieved 6 April 2018.
  7. ^ Pursell, Carroll (2015). From Playgrounds to PlayStation: The Interaction of Technology and Play. Johns Hopkins University Press. ISBN 978-1-4214-1650-2.
  8. ^ Snapp, Martin (16 December 2016). "The Original Happiest Place on Earth". Cal Alumni Association. Retrieved 8 February 2020.
  9. ^ Hartlaub, Peter (11 September 2010). "Bruce Sedley marks Children's Fairyland anniversary". SFGate. Retrieved 8 February 2020.
  10. ^ a b c Girlich, Katherine (22 June 2009). San Francisco Zoo. Arcadia Publishing. ISBN 978-1-4396-3807-1.
  11. ^ "Admissions » Children's Fairyland". fairyland.org. Retrieved 7 April 2018.
  12. ^ "Talking Storybooks Audio Tours Zoo Keys". The Talking Storybook Company. Retrieved 8 February 2020.
  13. ^ "List of Exhibitors". Association of Zoos and Aquariums 2019 Annual Conference. Retrieved 8 February 2020.
  14. ^ Dunnigan, Frank (2016). Growing Up in San Francisco: More Boomer Memories from Playland to Candlestick Park. Arcadia Publishing. p. 156. ISBN 978-1-4671-3570-2.
  15. ^ a b ZooKey 1950s Commercial (video), archived from the original on 21 December 2021, retrieved 7 February 2020
  16. ^ Bingaman, Brian. "What's new at the Philadelphia Zoo". The Reporter. Retrieved 8 February 2020.
  17. ^ Goodin-Smith, Oona (13 February 2019). "Zoo Keys are returning to the Philadelphia Zoo". The Philadelphia Inquirer. Retrieved 7 February 2020.
  18. ^ Hingston, Sandy (2 February 2019). "The Best Thing That Happened This Week: OMG, Zoo Keys Are Back!". Philadelphia Magazine. Retrieved 7 February 2020.
  19. ^ a b c Goodin-Smith, Oona (3 April 2019). "'It just brings me back': Zoo Keys have returned to Philadelphia, and the nostalgia is real". The Philadelphia Inquirer. Retrieved 7 February 2020.
  20. ^ Feran, Tom (2006). "TV's Barnaby dies at 86". Cleveland Plain Dealer. Archived from the original on 24 April 2006.
  21. ^ Guth, Douglas J.; April 24 (24 April 2017). "ZooKeys return to raise awareness, evoke nostalgia". Cleveland – Freshwater Media. Retrieved 8 February 2020.((cite web)): CS1 maint: numeric names: authors list (link)
  22. ^ "Cleveland Metroparks Partners With KeyBank To Host Community Events". Cleveland, OH Patch. 20 March 2017. Retrieved 8 February 2020.
  23. ^ "New Lion Zoo Key". Sacramento Zoo. 8 April 2011. Retrieved 8 February 2020.
  24. ^ Pellissier, Hank (5 February 2011). "Children's Fairyland". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 8 February 2020.
  25. ^ "Snapp Shot: Oakland's Children's Fairyland loses two giants". The Mercury News. 9 February 2012. Retrieved 8 February 2020.

Further reading