In 1909, the Fort Worth Zoo opened as the first zoo in Texas and was founded with one lion, two bear cubs, an alligator, a coyote, a peacock and a few rabbits. A lot has changed over the past 109 years — the zoo has become a nationally ranked facility, was voted the No. 4 zoo in the nation in 2017 by USA Today Travel Guide readers, and now is home to more than 7,000 native and exotic animals.
That number will continue to grow as the zoo opens four new exhibits over the next seven years as part of its $100 million capital campaign, A Wilder Vision. Zoo officials say it is one of the largest fundraising campaigns ever conducted in Fort Worth.
“We decided we wanted to ‘finish’ the zoo because we had done so many other exhibits and there were parts of the zoo that were not perfect,” said Ramona Bass, chair of A Wilder Vision and co-chair of the Zoo’s board of directors. “So, we came up with A Wilder Vision, four phases and this is phase one.”
Bass said that throughout the campaign more than $100 million was raised, and, though it has technically concluded, people are still welcome to contribute to the campaign as Bass says she is “never done fundraising for the zoo.”
Planning for A Wilder Vision began in 2011 and the campaign began Oct. 17, 2016. Funding will go for renovations to prepare the zoo for the next two decades, incorporating new exhibit space, renovated habitats, special events space, multiple dining areas, restrooms and new ways to observe, interact with and learn about animals, the zoo says.
The first of four new exhibits coming to the zoo though the campaign, the African Savannah, debuted April 21.
It will be followed by Elephant Springs in 2020, Hunters of Africa & Asian Predators in 2022 and Forests & Jungles in 2025; all are planned to encompass the zoo’s animal conservation mission.
The African Savanna’s 10-acre habitat is home to giraffes, zebras, ostriches, African antelope, flamingos, large African birds, hippos, black rhinos, meerkats and more, and is surrounded by aviaries. The exhibit includes an elevated deck for giraffe feeding, an underwater hippo viewing area, restaurants, shaded walkways and viewing areas and private event space.
In an effort to mimic the natural African environment, animals will roam freely together in the main savanna that will include multiple watering holes, shaded areas and a dry streambed.
“[Thirty years ago], the animals were on concrete with just mesh fences and it was charming because we were so lucky to have this site but it was a very old-fashioned zoo,” Bass said. “And that’s what sort of spurred me to get involved with the zoo, because I felt for the animals.”
The Fort Worth Zoo intends to remain at the forefront of elephant conservation and management with Elephant Springs, which when it opens in 2020 will triple its current size and will house the zoo’s three-generation Asian elephant herd. The new and expanded yards and habitats aim to enhance the zoo’s elephant breeding program.
Just upstream from the elephant herd will be the home of the greater one-horned rhino, which is also part of the breeding program.
Waterfalls and pools will flow through the Hunters of Africa & Asian Predators exhibits. Striped hyenas, Malayan tigers and the clouded leopard – a new species for the zoo – will be housed in this area.
A redesigned habitat will provide African lions an expanded yard just beyond the clouded leopard exhibit. New exhibit space will provide cheetahs with an enriched environment, and the African leopard and a pack of African wild dogs will also reside in Hunters of Africa & Asian Predators.
The final development stage for A Wilder Vision – Forests & Jungles – will be located just before Texas Wild! in the heart of the zoo. The new exhibit will let visitors winding through tree-lined trails surrounded by animals including the Democratic Republic of Congo rainforest’s okapi and the zoo’s African bongo collection. The Sumatran orangutans will leave their World of Primates exhibit for a new reimagined treetop habitat in the Forests & Jungles exhibit.
“[Thirty years from now], I would like to have finished A Wilder Vision, which still has six more years. Then, some of the things we’ve down before need some work again, another refresh, because like Texas Wild! has been there for 17 years, hard to believe, and there’s new and different things we can add to the zoo that we didn’t know about then,” Bass said.
Conservation remains a pillar of the Fort Worth Zoo’s mission, and A Wilder Vision’s expanded and renovated exhibit space will allow the zoo to continue its breeding programs and conservation leadership. Each exhibit will feature animals vulnerable to endangerment, endangered or critically endangered.
The African Savannah will house the black rhino, which is a critically endangered rhinoceros species. With fewer than 2,000 left in the wild, southern black rhinos are one of the most endangered species on the planet, the zoo says.
Endangered Asian elephants and the vulnerable greater one-horned rhino will inhabit Elephant Springs, while the vulnerable African lion and the critically endangered Malayan tiger —estimated to have only 300 left in the wild — will prowl the Hunters of Africa & Asian Predators exhibit.
Forests & Jungles will be home to the critically endangered Sumatran orangutan, whose population has declined more than 80 percent due to deforestation, and the endangered okapi, which has declined by more than 50 percent since 1995.
While the Fort Worth Business Press hasn’t been around quite as long as the century-old zoo, it is celebrating 30 years of writing about businesses that make an impact on Tarrant County and is showcasing some of the impact the Fort Worth Zoo has had in the past three decades.
During the zoo’s first decade, its collection of animals grew to include a pair of panthers, beavers, cinnamon bears, monkeys and prairie dogs, according to the zoo’s history webpage. In the early 1920s, two American bison and a zebra were purchased partially from coin donations at the zoo.
From 1909 to October 1991, the zoo was owned and operated by the City of Fort Worth, and during that time money was collected from the community to purchase new animals. However, due to decreasing financial support from the city as well as the need to update the facility, in 1991 the nonprofit Fort Worth Zoological Association took over the zoo’s management as part of a contract with the city.
The association had been helping with fundraising since 1939 and since taking over in 1991, it has raised more than $186 million from private entities, foundations and corporations to help add new exhibits and animals as well as renovate and improve restrooms, walkways, food outlets and picnic areas.
The zoo credits much of its growth and success to the association. Since 1992 it has averaged more than 1 million visitors a year, including 400,000 school children from North Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Louisiana. It has 40,000 members and is said to have a $150 million economic impact on the city.
“We are one of the very few zoos in the United States that has over a million people per year visit for two and a half decades [and] we have an estimated impact on the local economy between $125 and $150 million per year,” said Ardon Moore, president of the Fort Worth Zoological Association. “The Fort Worth Zoo has become … an iconic, must-see destination that really does drive and define the community.”
With the association behind it, the Fort Worth Zoo has grown from a handful of animals to more than a dozen sprawling exhibits and facilities. It is home to more than 500 animal species, including 68 endangered and threatened species on state and federal levels. Highlights in recent decades include:
1992: Asian Falls, World of Primates
1993: Raptor Canyon, Asian Rhino Ridge, Gloria Lupton Tennison Education Center, Portraits of the Wild Art Gallery
1994: Chee·tos Cheetahs
1995: Flamingo Bay, FUJIFILM Komodo Dragons, Terminix Insect City
1997: Meerkat Mounds
1998: Burnet Animal Health and Science Center
1999: Thundering Plains (now closed)
2001: Texas Wild!
2004: Parrot Paradise
2005: Great Barrier Reef
2010: Museum of Living Art (MOLA)
2012: Outdoor Learning Theater
2012: Texas Nature Traders
2015: Safari Splash
2018: African Savannah
Being named the No. 4 zoo in the nation in 2017 in USA Today Travel Guide is just the latest honor for the zoo, which has been ranked the Best Zoo in Texas by Yahoo Travel, the No. 1 attraction in the DFW Metroplex by Zagat survey, and a top-10 zoo or aquarium by FamilyFun magazine and TripAdvisor’s Traveler’s Choice awards.
Multiple exhibits have had their fair share of recognition as well. The Museum of Living Art exhibit, established in 2010, was voted the No. 4 best zoo exhibit in the nation by USA Today Travel Guide readers in 2015 and received 2011 top honors in exhibit design from The Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which has accredited the Fort Worth Zoo. The exhibit houses 250 amphibian and reptile species, representing more than 5,700 animals and making it one of the largest reptile collections in the nation.
The Texas Wild! exhibit pays homage to animals from all six regions of the Lone Star State. In 2000 the zoo received the International Conservation Award for its Jamaican iguana conservation program, which aims to protect the most endangered lizard in the world.
The World of Primates exhibit is recognized as the only place in the United States to feature all four great ape species — gorillas, orangutans, bonobos and chimpanzees, in addition to being the only Texas zoo and one of seven zoos in the nation to house bonobos.
Nationwide, the zoo is one of eight to house the endangered harpy eagle, one of four to display the African crowned eagle and palm nut vultures, and one of two to breed saddle-billed storks.
Worldwide, the zoo is recognized as a leader in Asian elephant conservation. It is one of only five locations that has two of the five rhino species in captivity – black and greater one-horned Asian rhinos. And it is home to the most successful breeding colony of lesser flamingos in the world, having reared chicks consistently since 2001.