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History of the Dallas Zoo

Part 1: The Early Years
Part 2: The Move to Oak Cliff
Part 3: Upgrades Begin
Part 4: Development Takes Off
Part 5: New Openings; Leadership Changes
Part 6: Bond Referendum Gives a Boost
Part 7: A New Century Dawns
Part 8: The Zoo’s ‘Biggest’ Undertaking Yet

Part 1: The Early Years

The Dallas Zoo is founded when a man from Colorado City sells two deer and two mountain lions to the City of Dallas for $60 and they are placed in pens in City Park.

City Park is the first city-owned and operated park, obtained from J. J. Eakins in November 1876.

The City purchases Fair Park, with a full complement of facilities and improvements, for $125,000. Although the Zoo is a very popular attraction, City Park lacks sufficient space to house all of the animals properly and citizens voice interest in a more fully developed zoo.

Fair Park is the only other suitable property owned by the City and a zoo facility begins in Fair Park.

The entire collection, which had grown to 27 animals, moves to Fair Park, making it the second home of the Dallas Zoo.


Part 2: The Move to Oak Cliff

Due to an expanding and prosperous State Fair, the Zoo is removed from Fair Park and relocates to its current location, Marsalis Park (purchased by the City in 1909) in Oak Cliff. The Mayor appoints an independent Zoo Commissioner, United States District Attorney William H. Atwell. The Zoo grows rapidly under his care and a large and varied collection of animals are obtained mostly through donations from civic groups and private citizens. The Zoo then becomes an educational facility rather than a mere collection of assorted animals.

Commissioner Atwell resigns to accept an appointment as a federal judge. All Zoo administration reverts to Park Board control and two Park Commissioners, Messrs. Fretz and Pike, assume duties as Zoo Commissioners until 1922.

The Mayor appoints a special commission to raise money for Zoo improvements. A hearty campaign is conducted and nearly $10,000 is raised for the Zoo fund.

The number of animals on exhibit increases from 161 in 1920 to 1,065 in 1925. One of the first major acquisitions, Queenie the elephant, is purchased with pennies, nickels, and dimes donated by the schoolchildren of Dallas. (Queenie lived at the Zoo through 1955, to an estimated age of 65 years.)

The animal collection continues to increase and reaches a peak of 1,540 individuals, before the exigencies of the Great Depression force the Park Board to reduce holdings to less than half that number.


Part 3: Upgrades Begin

Late 1930s
The Zoo is upgraded at an estimated cost of $100,000 with Federal Works Project Administration (WPA) labor and money and Centennial bond money. An extensive system of concrete and natural stone bridges, park houses, winding walks, hillside stairways, and retaining walls along the creek banks are added. The WPA projects include new monkey cages, large animal dens and paddocks, and wild fowl cages. There is also a new building that served as both commissary offices and an entrance.

The Dallas Zoo is one of the 10 largest zoos in the country, with over 700 individual mammals, birds, and reptiles. Featured exhibits in the 1940s include a Malayan tapir, two male chimpanzees, and two female elephants (Queenie and Tootsie).

The Dallas Zoological Society is founded as a nonprofit support group for the Zoo. The Society’s sole responsibility is to raise the necessary funds to purchase new animals for the collection.


Part 4: Development Takes Off

With Pierre A. Fontaine as the director, the Dallas Zoo is an attractive park with an impressive list of displays. Further development attracts more visitors to the Zoo. By 1961, visitors praise the change in atmosphere and design of the Zoo. New entrance buildings, information areas, meeting rooms, a reference library, commissary space, a bridge leading into the Zoo, retaining walls, and walkways are built for $300,000.

Plans called for another addition, the Bird & Reptile Building. This allows reptiles to be exhibited effectively for the first time at the Zoo.

Late 1960s and 1970s
The 1960s and 1970s continue to be a rapid-growth era for the Dallas Zoo. It’s during these two decades that the Dallas Zoo begins to seriously develop a research program; the reptile and amphibian department takes the lead in this area. Since the late 1960s, the Dallas Zoo receives 30 captive breeding awards, four significant achievement awards, and two Edward C. Bean awards from the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA) for work in the reptile/amphibian area.

It is decided that exhibits, which in the past had been considered fine, clean displays, need to be naturalistic. In 1981, the City approves a $75 million master plan for expansion and improvement of the Zoo’s facilities.

Voters approve a combined $30.5 million bond issue to fund the first phase of the Wilds of Africa.

The Dallas Zoo is accredited by the AZA, which is the first major accomplishment for new director, Warren Iliff. The Society also celebrates its 30th anniversary that year and announces that it has given a total of $1 million in private funds to the Dallas Zoo since its founding.

In an effort to increase philanthropic giving at the Zoo, Mr. Iliff works closely with Society director Paula Schlinger and her successor Gayle Rathbun to build the Society’s board of directors and its ability to raise contributions. Through these efforts, the Zoo receives its first $1 million gift from Nancy B. Hamon. This gift is combined with another $2.5 million in private contributions to build the Jake L. Hamon Gorilla Conservation Research Center. During these years, the Society is given responsibility for the management of the Zoo’s development, membership, and volunteer programs.

In March, Mr. Iliff and the Zoo celebrate its centennial birthday and ground is broken on the new Wilds of Africa exhibit.


Part 5: New Openings and Changes in Leadership

In the spring, the Wilds of Africa opens – representing the most comprehensive habitat display of a single continent ever attempted by a zoo. The exhibit includes a one-mile narrated monorail tour encompassing six African habitats. The public rushes to see the new exhibit and a new attendance record of 635,047 is set. During this period, the Society adds the management of the Zoo’s marketing, special events, food services, and retail operations to its list of responsibilities.

Mr. Iliff resigns as director in 1991. The City of Dallas, the Park Board, and the Society jointly search for a replacement.

Richard Buickerood, a retiring Air Force colonel, is hired as Zoo director. Mr. Buickerood remains the director for 14 years.

The Society, through a major gift from Exxon Corporation, funds a long-range strategic plan to take the Dallas Zoo into the 21st century.

The Strategic Plan is completed and outlines a reconfiguration of the Dallas Zoo’s exhibits, circulation, services, and interpretive approach to provide more responsive environments for animals, staff, and visitors. Although there is much planning under way, no new exhibits are opened for four years and attendance slips to 408,437.


Part 6: Bond Referendum Gives a Financial Boost

In July, the Society hires Michael L. Meadows to be its executive director. Shortly thereafter, the leadership of the Zoo, Park Board, and Society begin to mobilize quickly for an upcoming City bond referendum. The Society commits to match the amount of bond funding with an equal amount of private funding. Leaders from the Society, Park Board, and Zoo work together to determine the use of any new funding. From the Strategic Plan, they choose to build a new chimpanzee habitat, a new children’s zoo, a new animal health care facility, new primate exhibits, and to repair the roof of the Bird & Reptile Building. At this critical moment in the Dallas Zoo’s history, Exxon Corporation steps forward with a major commitment to build a new tiger habitat. This commitment helps convince the City Council to approve $6.7 million in bond funding for the Dallas Zoo.

The funds are overwhelmingly approved by Dallas voters, through the passage of Proposition 4. The Zoo has $4 million left from the 1985 bond program that the Zoo staff and Park Board decide to use to construct a new entrance, parking area, and lemur exhibit.

On October 8, the Dallas Zoological Society publicly announces the $10.7 million capital campaign, and that it has successfully raised the $6.7 million needed to match the City bond funds.

The capital campaign is successfully completed with the largest gift in the history of the Society, which was received from the Lacerte family. Their gift brings the total amount of private funds raised in the campaign to over $12 million. Through the combination of private gifts and bond funds, the Zoo opens the following exhibits/facilities: Primate Place (1996), Kimberly-Clark Chimpanzee Forest (1997), A. H. Meadows Animal Health Care Facility (1998), Exxon Endangered Tiger Habitat (1999), and the Lacerte Family Children’s Zoo (2000).

James Howard, the former managing director of the Hyatt Regency Dallas at Reunion, succeeds Mr. Meadows as Society CEO in 1999. With the opening of the Lacerte Family Children’s Zoo, Zoo attendance grows steadily.


Part 7: A New Century Dawns

Annual attendance grows to 635,000.

The Zoo updates its 1993 Long Range Strategic Plan to include a new Conservation Education and Science Center and the expansion of the Wilds of Africa.

The Endangered Species Carousel is constructed.

The Prime Meridian Food Court is built.

The Society receives a $2.3 million gift, the largest in the Zoo’s history, from James Moroney in honor of his sister, the late Betty Moroney Norsworthy. This gift is used to build the Betty Moroney Norsworthy Otter Outpost.

In an effort to increase the overall funding of the Dallas Zoo, the leadership of the Society, Park Board, and Zoo begin working on a plan to privatize the Zoo’s management. Although these early plans, which includes a proposal for Zoo funding through a County tax, did not succeed, they prepare City officials and the Society for continued dialogue on zoo privatization.

Jabari, a young adult Western lowland gorilla, escapes from his habitat and attacks several guests during Spring Break. Jabari is shot and killed by Dallas police. The Jake L. Hamon Gorilla Conservation Research Center is closed for renovation. Public confidence in the Zoo, which had been strong prior to the escape, suffers greatly and Zoo attendance falls to 508,000, the lowest level in six years. Just a few months later, Mr. Howard suffers a stroke and passes away. In October, the Society recruits Michael l. Meadows, executive vice president of public affairs at Southwestern Medical Foundation, to return as Dallas Zoological Society president and CEO.

TheZoo celebrates the openings of four new exhibits – Bug U!, featuring Texas invertebrates; Tamarin Treetops, home to golden lion and cotton-top tamarins; saddle-billed stork exhibit; and the Betty Moroney Norsworthy Otter Outpost, featuring Asian small-clawed otters. In addition, through a mini capital campaign in celebration of its 50th anniversary, the Society funds a complete renovation of the Wilds of Africa Ndebele Plaza, the front entrance, public rest rooms, and other ambiance improvements. The Society also underwrites an extensive marketing study on community attitudes about the Zoo that leads to the development and introduction of an exciting new brand, logo, and marketing program.

Gregg Hudson, former director of the Cincinnati Zoo and Fort Worth Zoo, is named the new executive director of the Dallas Zoo. The Zoo opens several exhibits including Crocodile Isle (featuring Nile crocodiles), a rhino iguana exhibit, the totally renovated Jake L. Hamon Gorilla Conservation Research Center and exhibit, Acacia Springs Aviary (featuring birds from the dry scrublands of East Africa), Don M. Glendenning Penguin Cove featuring African penguins, a renovated habitat for kangaroos and wallabies, a new perentie monitor exhibit, and Travis & Zach’s Birds Landing (an interactive bird exhibit in the Lacerte Family Children’s Zoo). In November, City of Dallas voters approve $25 million in bond funds for capital improvements at the Zoo, the largest investment in the Zoo’s physical plant in 20 years.

Spring seesthe opening of Wings of Wonder, featuring some of the largest birds of prey in the world. The Zoo also welcomes back giant tortoises with the opening of the Galápagos and Aldabra tortoise exhibits. In addition, improvements to the ambiance is made throughout the park. The end result is the highest attendance in 30 years with 641,792 visitors, including a single-day attendance record of 26,421 visitors on Dollar Day in July.

The Zoo opens its largest temporary exhibit, Stingray Bay. The exhibit features dozens of cownose and southern stingrays in a 17,000 gallon pool that allows visitors to safely touch the aquatic animals. In July, the Dallas Zoo celebrates its largest single day attendance ever with 34,479 visitors on Dollar Day.

In August, the Dallas Zoo and the City of Dallas announce plans to expedite construction of an 11-acre African savanna habitat, scheduled to open in 2010. The new habitat will be funded through 2006 voter-approved tax dollars and private donations raised through the Dallas Zoological Society. In September, the Dallas Zoological Society announces the largest single donation in Dallas Zoo’s 120-year history, a $5 million pledge from the Harold Simmons Foundation to help design and construct the Giants of the Savanna exhibit. Also in September, the Society’s premier fundraising event, Zoo To Do, is postponed due to Hurricane Ike. Rescheduled for November, it is the most successful gala to date. In October, the Zoo announces an all-time attendance record for the second straight year, with 670,084 visitors, a 34% increase in attendance since 2005.

In April, the Dallas City Council votes unanimously to move forward with construction of the Zoo’s Giants of the Savanna exhibit. The 11-acre site will become home to more than 12 species of animals, including elephants, giraffe, lions, cheetahs, and warthogs.

With an unprecedented budget shortfall for the City of Dallas looming on the horizon, Dallas City Council votes unanimously to turn the Dallas Zoo over to private management in August after two months of intense negotiation. The public-private partnership originates from the Dallas Zoological Society and the City of Dallas exploring opportunities to save the City of Dallas money while providing ways to operate the Zoo more effectively. On October 1, the Society and Dallas Zoo Management (DZM), a new nonprofit organization founded by the Society to manage the Dallas Zoo and Children’s Aquarium at Fair Park, enter into a management agreement whereby DZM assumes management responsibilities of the Zoo for a term of 25 years with two automatic five-year renewal periods. The Society agrees to support DZM in its management of the Zoo and unconditionally guarantees DZM’s performance under the Management Agreement. The board of directors of DZM is appointed by the Society’s board of directors in August 2009. DZS and DZM staff work diligently to make the transition to private management smooth despite having less than 90 days to accomplish the task.

While the Zoo makes this important management transition, construction on the new $30 million Giants of the Savanna project continues as do plans to acquire and transport the largest number of large African mammals to the Zoo in its history. To allow the Zoo to properly quarantine the new elephants and giraffes, the Society funds the construction of a new large mammal quarantine barn and yard. The Zoo also begins building a large herd of giraffes. Also in March, the Society’s board votes to fund the design and construction of a new commissary using a portion of a $2.2 million bequest from the estate of William Moore Beecherl, the largest bequest in the Zoo’s history.


Part 8: The Zoo’s ‘Biggest’ Undertaking Yet

The Giants of the Savanna exhibit opens to the public on Memorial Day Weekend. The public response is overwhelmingly positive and the Zoo sets another all-time fiscal year attendance record of 698,506 in September 2010. The following November, the Society’s Zoo To Do gala, held in part in the new savanna exhibit, collects net proceeds of $617,000, another new record.

The Dallas Zoo opens “SOAR, A Festival of Flight” in April after contracting with Natural Encounters, Inc. to produce this show.

In an effort to maintain the Zoo’s positive momentum, the DZM board, Society’s board, and Park Board approve a capital improvement plan that requires a combination of public and private funding totaling more than $53 million over five years. These plans include a new education center, the complete renovation of the original Wilds of Africa and monorail, and major changes to ZooNorth, the oldest section of the Dallas Zoo.

The Zoo officially opens the William M. Beecherl Animal Nutrition Center.

Demolition begins on the Large Mammal Building in ZooNorth to make way for a green space that will include a lawn, picnic tables, and lighting for evening events.

The Zoo celebrates its 125th birthday with a Zoo-wide bash in early April that includes treats, a concert, new attractions, and more.

The Wild Encounters Stage at the Ndebele Plaza opens in April. Educational interpreters use the stage throughout the day, seven days a week, with a variety of animals to provide close-up encounters, answer questions, and help educate Zoo guests about wildlife.

The Safari Express pulls into the new Picnic Ridge area at ZooNorth in April. The kid-sized, all-electric trackless train is decorated with animal graphics and equipped with a smoke machine and sound effects as it winds its way around Picnic Ridge.

The Zoo announces that it is the first zoo in North America to combine African elephants with zebras, giraffes, impalas, ostriches, and guinea fowl in the same habitat, where these majestic animals can explore the award-winning Giants of the Savanna habitat side by side, just as they would in the wild.

A giant anteater arrives as the first occupant of the Zoo’s new giant anteater habitat. The exhibit features a large grassy area with a pool for swimming, sand and mulch for digging, and trees and old logs for poking around in search of treats.

The Zoo welcomes two new cheetah cubs and a black lab puppy companion to be a part of the Animal Adventures outreach program and help teach the public about the highly endangered African animals and conservation efforts on their behalf. The Cheetah Encounter stage will open to give the animals an opportunity to show off their speed.

The Dallas Zoo is recognized as one of the Top 10 zoos in the United States by USA Today.

The Monorail Safari closes for renovations and improvements. The 24-year-old attraction had been upgraded through the years with updated components, including the electrical system and the 12 motors that propel each train.

The birth of giraffe calf Kipenzi is broadcast and streamed live by Animal Planet and is viewed by millions of adoring fans. Months later the Zoo is devastated to announce the death of Kipenzi because of an unpreventable accident in the giraffe feeding yard.

The Dallas Zoo celebrates its first ever millionth guest in a surprise ceremony for the Martin family from Anna, Texas. The 2015 fiscal year set an all-time record with more than one million guests passing through the gates.

Working with conservation officials in Swaziland, Africa, Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium, Wichita’s Sedgwick County Zoo, and the Dallas Zoo announce a collaboration to provide 18 African elephants with necessary new homes to make room for critically endangered rhinos.

The Dallas Zoo is honored as one of 119 U.S. zoos to achieve continuous accreditation for more than 25 years by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums.

Construction begins on a $13.5 million, 3.5-acre Simmons Hippo Outpost, an immersive African waterhole habitat that includes a giant underwater viewing area for these surprisingly agile, super-sized “river horses.”

The Dallas Zoo, along with the partner zoos, completes the rescue mission to relocate 17 elephants from drought-stricken Swaziland, Africa.

The monorail reopens after an extensive renovation. The renamed Wilds of Africa Adventure Safari underwent a $3 million overhaul with updated electrical and mechanical systems, renovated station, air-conditioning, and more.


The national Association of Zoos & Aquariums grants the Dallas Zoo accreditation in March, marking 2017 the 32nd straight year that Texas’s largest zoo has held this achievement.

The Dallas Zoo and National Geographic showcase a one-of-a-kind project through the national launch of a traveling exhibition, “National Geographic Photo Ark.” Featuring the remarkable work of National Geographic photographer and Fellow Joel Sartore, the exhibition displays through.

In April, the Dallas Zoo opens its new $14 million, 2.1-acre Simmons Hippo Outpost, an immersive African waterhole habitat that includes an underwater viewing area.

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