About Us :: History of the Dallas Zoo

History of the Dallas Zoo

The Dallas Zoo dates from the spring of 1888 when a man from Colorado City offered to sell two deer and two mountain lions to the City of Dallas. The animals were purchased by the City for $60 and placed in pens in City Park. City Park was the first city-owned and operated park, obtained from J. J. Eakins on November 7, 1876. Mr. Eakins offered to sell the acreage he owned around the City Pest House for $600. Dr. C. E. Keller, an officer and stockholder in a Dallas streetcar line offered to pay $200 of the price, making the City’s cost to obtain the land only $400.

City Park was the only city-owned park in Dallas for 28 years until 1904, when the City purchased Fair Park, with a full complement of facilities and improvements, for $125,000. Although the Zoo was a very popular attraction, City Park lacked sufficient space to house all of the animals properly and citizens voiced interest in a more fully developed zoo. Fair Park was the only other suitable property owned by the City and a zoo facility was begun in Fair Park in 1909. In 1910 the entire collection moved to Fair Park, making it the second home of the Dallas Zoo.

In 1912, due to an expanding and prosperous State Fair, the Zoo was removed from Fair Park and relocated to its current location, Marsalis Park (purchased by the City in 1909) in Oak Cliff. Also in 1912, the Mayor appointed an independent Zoo Commissioner, United States District Attorney William H. Atwell. The Zoo grew rapidly under his care and a large and varied collection of animals were obtained mostly through donations from civic groups and private citizens. The Zoo then became an educational facility rather than a mere collection of assorted animals. Commissioner Atwell resigned in 1914 to accept an appointment as a federal judge. All Zoo administration reverted to Park Board control and two Park Commissioners, Messrs. Fretz and Pike, assumed duties as Zoo Commissioners until 1922.

In 1922, the Mayor appointed a special zoo commission to raise money for zoo improvements. A hearty campaign was conducted and nearly $10,000 was raised for the zoo fund. The number of animals on exhibit increased from 161 in 1920 to 1,065 in 1925. One of the first major acquisitions, Queenie the elephant, was 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 collection continued to increase and reached a peak of 1,540 specimens in 1931, before the exigencies of the Great Depression forced the Park Board to reduce holdings to less than half that number.

The Zoo was upgraded in the late 1930s, at an estimated cost of $100,000.00 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 were added. The WPA projects included new monkey cages, large animal dens and paddocks, and wild fowl cages. There was also a new building that served as both commissary offices and an entrance.

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

In 1955, the Dallas Zoological Society was founded as a non-profit support group for the zoo. The Society’s sole responsibility at the time was to raise the necessary funds to purchase new animals for the collection.

By the 1960s, with Pierre A. Fontaine as the Director, the Dallas Zoo was an attractive park with an impressive list of displays. Further development attracted more visitors to the zoo. By 1961, visitors were praising the change in atmosphere and design of the zoo. New entrance buildings, information areas, meeting rooms, a reference library, commissary space, and a bridge leading into the zoo, retaining walls, and walkways were built for $300,000. In 1964, plans called for still another addition, the Bird and Reptile Building. This allowed reptiles to be exhibited effectively for the first time at the Zoo.

The 1960s and 1970s continued to be a rapid-growth era for the Dallas Zoo. It was during these two decades that the Dallas Zoo began to seriously develop a research program; the Reptile and Amphibian Department took the lead in this area. Since the late 1960s, the Dallas Zoo has received 30 captive breeding awards, four significant achievement awards, and two Edward C. Bean awards from the American Zoo and Aquarium Association (AZA) for work in the Reptile/Amphibian area.

During the 1980s, exhibits, which in the past had been considered fine, clean displays needed to be naturalistic. In 1981, the City approved a $75 million master plan for expansion and improvement of the Zoo’s facilities. In 1982, voters approved a combined $30.5 million bond issue to fund the first phase of the Wilds of Africa. The Dallas Zoo was accredited by the AZA in 1985, which was the first major accomplishment for new zoo director, Warren Iliff. The Society also celebrated its 30th anniversary that year and announced that it had 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 worked closely with Society Director Paula Schlinger and her successor Gayle Rathbun to build the Society’s Board and its ability to give. Through these efforts, the Zoo received its first $1 million gift from Nancy B. Hamon. This gift was combined with another $2.5 million in private contributions to build the Jake L. Hamon Gorilla Conservation Research Center. During these years, the Society was given responsibility for the management of the Zoo’s development, membership, and volunteer programs.

In March 1988, Mr. Iliff and the Zoo celebrated its centennial birthday and ground was broken on the new Wilds of Africa exhibit. In the spring of 1990, the Wilds of Africa opened – representing the most comprehensive habitat display of a single continent ever attempted by a zoo. The public rushed to see the new exhibit and a new attendance record of 635,047 was set. During this period, the Society added the management of the Zoo’s marketing, special events, food services, and retail operations to its list of responsibilities.

Mr. Iliff resigned as Director in 1991. The City of Dallas, the Park Board, and the Zoological Society jointly searched for a replacement. In 1992, Richard Buickerood, a retiring Air Force colonel, was hired as Zoo Director. Mr. Buickerood remained the Director for 14 years.

The Zoological Society, through a major gift from Exxon Corporation in 1992, funded a long-range strategic plan to take the Dallas Zoo into the 21st century. The Strategic Plan, completed in 1993, outlined 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 was much planning under way, no new exhibits were opened for four years and attendance slipped to 408,437.

In July 1994, the Society hired Michael Meadows to be its Executive Director. Shortly thereafter, the leadership of the Zoo, Park Board, and Society began to mobilize quickly for an upcoming City bond referendum. The Zoological Society committed to match the amount of bond funding with an equal amount of private funding. Leaders from the Society, Park Board, and Zoo also worked together to determine the use of any new funding. From the Strategic Plan, they chose 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 and Reptile Building. At this critical moment in the Dallas Zoo’s history, Exxon Corporation stepped forward with a major commitment to build a new tiger exhibit. This commitment helped convince City Council to approve $6.7 million in bond funding for the Dallas Zoo. These funds were overwhelmingly approved by Dallas voters, through the passage of Proposition 4 in 1995. In addition, the zoo had $4 million left from the 1985 bond program that the zoo staff and Park Board decided to use to construct a new entrance, parking area, and lemur exhibit.

On October 8, 1996, the Dallas Zoological Society publicly announced the $10.7 million capital campaign, and that it had successfully raised the $6.7 million needed to match the City bond funds. In 1999, the capital campaign was successfully completed with the largest gift in the history of the Society, from the Lacerte family. Their gift brought 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 opened 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, succeeded Mr. Meadows as Society CEO in 1999. With the opening of the Lacerte Family Children’s Zoo, zoo attendance grew steadily. By 2001, annual attendance had grown to 635,000.

In 2001, the Zoo updated its 1993 Long Range Strategic Plan to include a new Conservation Education and Science Center and the expansion of the Wilds of Africa. An Endangered Species Carousel (2002) and the Prime Meridian Food Court (2003) were constructed during this time as well.

In 2003, the Zoological Society received a $2.3 million gift, the largest in the Zoo’s history, from James Moroney in honor of his sister, Betty Moroney Norsworthy. This gift was 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 began working on a plan to privatize the Zoo’s management. Although these early plans, which included a proposal for Zoo funding through a County tax, did not succeed, they prepared City officials and the Society for continued dialogue on zoo privatization.

The year 2004 proved a difficult one for the zoo. In March, Jabari, an adult Western lowland gorilla, escaped from his habitat and attacked several guests during Spring Break. Jabari was shot and killed by Dallas police. The Jake L. Gorilla Conservation Research Center was closed for renovation. Public confidence in the zoo, which had been strong prior to the escape, suffered greatly and zoo attendance fell to 508,000, the lowest level in six years. Just a few months later, Mr. Howard suffered a stroke and passed away. In October, the Society recruited Michael Meadows, Executive Vice President of Public Affairs at Southwestern Medical Foundation, to return as Dallas Zoological Society President and CEO.

During 2005, the zoo celebrated the openings of four special 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 funded a complete renovation of the Wilds of Africa Ndebele Plaza, the front entrance, public rest rooms, and other ambiance improvements. The Society also underwrote an extensive marketing study on community attitudes about the zoo that led to the development and introduction of an exciting new brand, logo, and marketing program.

In September 2006, Gregg Hudson, former Director of the Cincinnati Zoo and Fort Worth Zoo was named the new Executive Director of the Dallas Zoo. Also in 2006, the zoo opened several exhibits including Crocodile Isle (featuring Nile crocodiles), rhino iguana exhibit, the totally renovated Jake L. Hamon Gorilla Conservation Research Center and exhibit, and Acacia Springs Aviary (featuring birds from the dry scrublands of East Africa), Don M. Glendenning Penguin Cove featuring African black-footed 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 2006, City of Dallas voters approved $25 million in bond funds for capital improvements at the zoo, the largest investment in the zoo’s physical plant in 20 years.

Spring of 2007 saw the opening of Wings of Wonder, featuring some of the largest birds of prey in the world. The zoo also welcomed back giant tortoises with the opening of the Galapagos and Aldabra tortoise exhibits. In addition, improvements to the ambiance were made throughout the park. The end result was 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.

In 2008, the Zoo opened its largest temporary exhibit, Stingray Bay. The exhibit featured dozens of cownose and southern stingrays in a 17,000 gallon pool that allowed visitors to safely touch the aquatic animals. Other highlights from 2008 include: July 15, 2008, the Dallas Zoo celebrated its largest single day attendance ever with 34,479 visitors on Dollar Day.

In August 2008, the Dallas Zoo and the City of Dallas announced plans to expedite construction of an 11-acre African Savanna habitat, scheduled to open in 2010. The new habitat would be funded through 2006 voter-approved tax dollars and private donations raised through the Dallas Zoological Society. On September 3, 2008, the Dallas Zoological Society announced 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, was postponed due to Hurricane Ike. Rescheduled for November, it was the most successful gala to date. In October 2008, the Zoo announced an all-time attendance record for the second straight year, with 670,084 visitors, a 34% increase in attendance since 2005.

In April 2009, the Dallas City Council voted unanimously to move forward with construction of the zoo’s Giants of the Savanna exhibit. The 11-acre site would 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 voted unanimously to turn the Dallas Zoo over to private management in August, 2009 after two months of intense negotiation. The public-private partnership originated 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, 2009, 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, entered into a management agreement whereby DZM assumed management responsibilities of the zoo for a term of 25 years with two automatic five-year renewal periods. The Society agreed to support DZM in its management of the zoo and unconditionally guaranteed DZM’s performance under the Management Agreement. The Board of DZM was appointed by the Society’s Board of Directors in August 2009. DZS and DZM staff worked diligently to make the transition to private management smooth despite having less than 90 days to accomplish the task.

While the zoo made this important management transition, construction on the new $30 million Giants of the Savanna project continued as did plans to acquire and transport the largest number of large African mammals to the zoo in its history. In order to allow the zoo to properly quarantine the new elephants and giraffes, the Society funded the construction of a new large mammal quarantine barn and yard. Shortly thereafter, the zoo acquired four more African elephants in March of 2010 to bring the zoo’s total to six. The zoo also began building a large herd of giraffes. Also in March, the Society’s Board voted 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.

The Giants of the Savanna exhibit opened to the public Memorial Day Weekend of 2010. The public response was overwhelming and the zoo set 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, collected net proceeds of $617,000, another new record.

The Dallas Zoo opened “SOAR, A Festival of Flight” in April 2011 after contracting with Natural Encounters, Inc. to produce this show. The show is currently playing in the newly constructed and privately funded 600-seat Wildlife Amphitheater situated in the former Bird Valley section of the zoo.

In an effort to maintain the zoo’s positive momentum, the DZM Board, Society’s Board, and Park Board approved a capital improvement plan that will require 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.