Zoo Story

Rating the best Texas zoos from both sides of the cage.

April 1975By and Comments

In 1909 Fort Worth purchased from a traveling carnival a lion, two bear cubs, an alligator, a coyote, a peacock, and an escalating population of rabbits. Not to be outdone, the Dallas city fathers, who boasted only some native stock like raccoons and de-scented skunks, purchased Queenie, a retired circus elephant. Houston began zoo­keeping in 1920 when the National Parks Department presented the city with one lonely bison, who was event­ually joined by a bissonnet, and some dispossessed circus stock.

What began with an animal here and there burgeoned into an enormous and eclectic menagerie for each of Texas’ large cities: San Antonio, Fort Worth, Houston, and Dallas. Collec­tions grew at random and facilities fol­lowed, although often makeshift. These are the zoos that we all grew up with: miscellaneous assortments of animals divided according to species and usually individually caged.

Today Texas taxpayers and zoo personnel want a change. By the time they are adolescent, big-city children have probably seen more zebras and lions than coons and possums. They and their parents are repulsed rather than amazed to see a saggy-coated lion in a tile cubicle or a snow leopard rubbing its nose raw on cyclone fenc­ing. People who send money to the National Wildlife Federation and the Big Thicket Association want no part of animal trading ventures that pro­mote poaching in Africa, Asia, or the United States. Visitors are more inter­ested in seeing healthy animals in their natural habitats (or a close approxi­mation of those habitats) than in see­ing cage upon cage of listless speci­mens.

Zoo personnel recognize the prob­lems but, without funding, they can do little to correct them. The Fort Worth Zoo’s administration states the problem well. More animals are often available for display than the existing housing can accommodate (and it is difficult for zoos to turn down the hundreds of wild animals brought in annually by people who cannot cope with wild pets). Some facilities are inadequate because of lack of space, dilapidated structures, outdated plumb­ing, and insufficient protection for the public. While enough money is usually available for the purchase of exotic animals, it has frequently been dif­ficult to secure funds to improve the sewers, lighting, drainage, and office files. Low salaries have contributed to a high turnover of zoo staff.

At last public concern is making funds available for a new look in Texas zoos. The changes are not only physical, but also philosophical. Texas zoos will no longer be consumers of wildlife, but producers of wildlife. While zoos were once partly respon­sible for the rape of the African plains, their new role will encompass conser­vation. On September 1, 1914, the last passenger pigeon died without fanfare in the Cincinnati Zoo; that same month in the same zoo, the last Carolina parakeet expired. In the future other species will undoubtedly disappear, but it won’t be because zoos aren’t trying to save them. Today’s zoos are becoming the hope of endangered species. Already several rarities, such as the Pére David’s deer, have been yanked from the brink of extinction solely through the efforts of zoos. One Texas zoo director thinks that we may see the day when Brownsville or Dallas sends bongos to the Congo and okapis to Kenya to reestablish native populations.

In conjunction with conservation, education has become a prime concern of zoos. Built-in multimillion-dollar living laboratories allow zoos to con­duct classes, demonstrate food prep­aration and nutrition, hold public oper­ations and postmortems on animals, publish information pamphlets, and generally try to educate the taxpaying public in the ways of the animals that it owns and feeds. The trend is toward social grouping of animals in natural­istic settings. Not only are the animals more comfortable in these habitat dis­plays but they also behave more normally.

Modern zoos are big business. The planning of habitat displays requires the talents of zoologists (for the needs of the animals), traffic control special­ists (for moving hordes of people), botanists (for choosing appropriate plants), and architects (for designing structures that will please the animals, the visitors, and the budget).

Updating older zoos takes time as well as money and planning. Limited space, outmoded structures, and piece­meal funding all impose handicaps. In order to come to grips with these prob­lems, most zoos have chosen to de­velop master plans, which provide long-range goals while allowing for in­stallment-type remodeling. They also ensure continuity over the long haul in spite of changes in personnel. Most of the master plans for Texas zoos in­volve twenty years and millions of dollars. Not burdened with remodeling problems are new facilities like Brownsville’s Gladys Porter Zoo and Abilene’s Nelson Park Zoo, which are the very embodiment of new zoo philosophy and architecture.

The following guide to the larger Texas zoos points out the best features of each one, the things a visitor should look for, and the plans each one has for the future. We include a clip-out zoo guide.

SAN ANTONIO

The San Antonio Zoo, built into an old rock quarry, has natural features that zoo architects have had to build from scratch in Brownsville and Houston. A part of Brackenridge Park, it shares with the Witte Museum a comfortable site on the San Antonio River where century-old pecan and oak trees shade the walkways. Many of the existing animal enclosures were carved into the walls of the quarry in the 1930s by WPA masons. These naturalistic confines, complete with moats, multiple levels, shaded areas, and concealed grotto housing, are still serviceable, and are also the proto­types for “natural” areas in new zoos elsewhere.

The waterfowl collection in San Antonio is the most extensive in the United States, thanks in part to the zoo’s inexhaustible artesian well, which pours 18,000 gallons of clear pure water daily into the aqueducts and channels that wind through the zoo. Visitors, following the winding waters, wander past double-wattled cassowaries, the world’s only whoop­ing cranes that breed in captivity, secretary birds, swans, and endless varieties of ducks. All told, some 427 species are represented by the 1389 individuals (not counting hatchings since this writing). The waters that meander through the aviaries are alive with fish that maintain their numbers in spite of the hungry birds. Mammoth common carp, Mozambique mouth-brooders, buffalo fish, and sailfin mollies free the water of algae and keep the wading birds on their toes.

San Antonio, along with Houston, Dallas, and Fort Worth, has an ex­tensive collection of reptiles, especially snakes. Taken together, these four zoos have the best collection of snakes in the world, and snake swapping has increased the population of many rare breeds.

One of the outstanding and success­ful programs at the San Antonio Zoo has been the breeding of ungulates (hoofed animals), especially exotic ones. As one of three Texas zoos ap­proved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (Gladys Porter and Dal­las are the other two), the San An­tonio Zoo is able to import hoofed animals from foreign countries. The USDA regulations require strict con­trol over each of the imports, as a foreign disease might be disastrous to native domestic stock. None of these animals can leave the zoo, but off­spring can be traded. Several years ago, San Antonio, short on funds but long on know-how, made a deal with Texas Exotic Wildlife Association members who wanted to stock their ranches with animals that might thrive on the Africa-like Texas rangeland. The Longorias, the Mecoms, the Klebergs, the Stevens, and others financed the acquisition of breeding stock, which included dama gazelle, beisa oryx, greater kudus, gemsbok, Arabian gazelle, waterbucks, and impalas. The zoo and the ranchers share the offspring on a 50-50 basis.

Trading is more necessary in 1975 than before because of the 1973 fed­eral Endangered Species Act, which prohibits the movement of endangered species for commercial reasons. There­fore, the San Antonio Zoo, like other zoos, trades its excess endangered off­spring. The system eliminates, to some extent, the need for zoos to spend cash for stock. (Even in a bear market, a good two-hump camel goes for $14,000 and a pair of young okapis for $50,000 to $100,000.) This swapping reduces animal importation by zoos. In fact, according to the U.S. Sport Fisheries and Wildlife Bureau, only one-fourth of one per cent of the wild animals brought into the United States goes to zoos. Private collectors and pet shops are responsible for the rest. Trading and selling are complicated by the fact that zoos soon fill up with easily bred animals. It becomes in­creasingly difficult to get rid of excess lion cubs and to find homes for species, like hippos, that are expensive to support. Many Texas zoos will have to face the problem of overpopulation of some animals. The San Antonio, Dallas, and Brownsville zoos will have the market edge with their rare stock and breeding expertise.

A feature of the San Antonio Zoo that visitors do not ordinarily see is the hydroponics system for growing plants in a nutrient solution that pro­duces four thousand pounds of animal fodder a day. The zoo at Brownsville has a similar system.

San Antonio and the Future

San Antonio has three phases to its development plans. The first is de­voted to upgrading the present facili­ties and combining many existing ex­hibits into groupings, like the African Plains exhibit recently completed. The aquarium, reptile house, and small mammal house will be combined into a Life Zone area. In the second phase, the zoo will expand onto an adjacent piece of land. The third stage will take in 323 acres of the Leon Springs Military Reserve, eight miles north of the city. This will be developed over the next fifteen to twenty years as a preserve and breeding area for large animals, especially hoofed stock and waterfowl, an elephantine task that necessitates supplying water and fenc­ing tracts with fine mesh wire.

FORT WORTH

Fort Worth’s zoo is a busy “doing” and “teaching” zoo on the banks of the Trinity River shaded by magnifi­cent hardwood trees. Although it is Texas’ oldest municipal zoo, it is in many ways the most forward looking, providing many services for its visitors, particularly children. Its educational programs are models for zoos through­out the country.

In the herpetarium (a word coined at the Fort Worth Zoo), reptiles are arranged by geographic region. Many of the cases have tape-recorded de­scriptions, and a curb-like step allow­ing children to climb up to see each display, a simple expedient which is a boon to worn parents who can’t lift another tot to see another snake.

A whale of a collection of native fish includes saltwater specimens in a mammoth tank. Visitors can look into the tank from above or can get a fish-eye view through a low window. The sea lion exhibit provides children with their own low-level viewing area. Cat­fish in wall aquariums wow the small-fry with electric, polka dot, and up­side-down varieties.

The staff is a part of the act at the Fort Worth Zoo, going about their business in a glass-walled service center where the public can watch the feeding and care of the animals. Food for the animals is prepared in a kitchen at one end of this building, where at­tendants fill trays and buckets marked “Gladys” or “Captain” with individ­ually catered meals. The veterinary offices are at the center of the build­ing while the operating theater with seats for spectators takes up the other end. Interested students and visitors are welcome to view operations and postmortems.

With an eye for detail and informa­tion, the zoo staff has designed labels that deserve applause for their com­prehensiveness and clarity. A brown label identifies the animal; a green one gives natural history information; and a blue one gives instructions, such as “Don’t Beat on the Glass.”

Education is a passion at the Fort Worth Zoo. Programs for elementary school children are coordinated with lessons from Today’s Basic Science, the text used in the public schools. In addition, programs for kindergartners demonstrate how the zoo cares for its animals, relating it to pet care. Special programs are available for children with learning problems and there is a program for the visually handicapped that helps them learn the animals through touch, hearing, and (espe­cially) smell. “Zebra Tales,” a monthly bulletin, is distributed free to public schools. The zoo has a first-rate classroom where the zoo staff and Junior League volunteers teach zool­ogy and animal art for both chil­dren and adults. The zoo also sponsors a film program, an Explorer Scout post, and sabbaticals for students. Currently, the Fort Worth Zoo has the best educational program of this kind in the state.

Fort Worth and the Future

The African diorama, completed in 1971, is the prototype of exhibits to come. Built on a hillside, it allows visitors to see African plains animals apparently sharing the same space with other species, including predators, but they are actually separated by walkways and rock rises. Similar dioramas will feature South American, Asian, and Polar groups. Fort Worth will also continue to expand its service-to-the-community programs.

HOUSTON

Houston’s zoo, handicapped from the outset by a flat, waterless site, became host over the years to some poorly built, depressing cages. Re­cently, however, Houston has taken the tiger by the tail and has put to­gether some inspired exhibits. The zoo administration is engrossed in the most awesome and exciting zoo planning in Texas. Presently, the most interesting exhibits, those which will be kept as part of the master plan, are the chil­dren’s zoo, the bird house, the gorilla habitat, and the nocturnal exhibit.

The children’s zoo is a you-can-touch-it world where tots can ex­amine animals, and vice versa. The area is divided into four geographical regions—Asia, Africa, North Amer­ica, and South America—where youngsters are corralled with benign beasts, such as burros, llamas, goats, sheep, possums, ferrets, rabbits, and occasional snakes. Outside the contact areas are a prairie dog village, a rac­coon town, and an elephant pad. A hatchery illustrates the chicken-versus-egg dilemma, while a nursery is home to dozens of transient baby beasts. In the nursery, children are likely to see a tiny grizzly bear in an incubator, fennec fox pups, chimpanzee toddlers with Creative Playthings, and bottle-fed lion cubs. The main drawback of the children’s zoo is its location, a great distance from the parking lot, but that problem will be solved after the master plan is put into operation. The birdhouse was one of the first naturalistic, unbarred habitats created at the Houston Zoo. Visitors enter a darkened passageway where exotic birds live in theatrically skylighted glassed-in cages along the sides. You then pass, via swinging bridge, into a free-flight area complete with water­falls, riverlets, gargantuan tropical plants, and nesting sites in simulated Mayan ruins.

The recently completed gorilla ex­hibit is the pride of the zoo. Archi­tects and zoologists went bananas and created a zootopia for a pair of pam­pered, and hopefully fertile, gorillas. They are on stage but have the illusion of privacy, as the human traffic passes through a darkened viewing area. The exhibit is designed to show the gorillas gathering food, playing, building sleep­ing nests, relaxing, and perhaps some­day raising a family. Spectacular tropi­cal birds share the habitat.

Part of the small mammal exhibit provides a darkened environment for night prowlers, where the dim light­ing does not disturb the nocturnal animals. Visitors see vampire bats swilling horse blood, bush babies bounding from limb to limb to limb, and the s-l-o-w loris working its way down a branch.

Houston and the Future

The Houston Zoo’s ambitious master plan is a part of a $72-million park improvement project that allocates to the zoo the lion’s share of the funds and efforts. The audacious project, under the direction of the Parks De­partment’s George Lanier and the Zoo’s John Werler, began this winter with the task of bringing the present facilities up to snuff. (The kingfisher gets his windowpane replaced; the leaky faucet in the zoo nursery gets a new washer; the feed trough in the oryx pen gets nailed back together, etc.) With the fix-up completed, the work on renovating Hermann Park and instituting a Cullen Park zoo begins.

The master plan has several phases and may take ten years to complete. One part involves turning the existing Hermann Park Zoo into an educational exhibit area that will include an aquarium; habitat areas (Arctic World, Tropical World, Desert World, In­visible World, Island World); and moated exhibits of representative ani­mals. Interpretive graphic displays with audio explanations will expound upon the animals, their habits, and natural environments. The Hermann facility will be primarily a teaching zoo.

Another part of the plan involves the development of 24,000 acres west of the city near Addicks’ Dam. Called Cullen Park in recognition of the generous grant made by the Cullen Foundation, the park will be divided into several areas: nature preserves; forestation land (to grow trees for city use); recreational sites; a model farm circa 1890, complete with family and crops; visitors can examine via side­walks herds of various cattle breeds developed in Texas (that’s most of them); wagons, horses, mules, and cultivating equipment. A large part of the park, some 1000 acres, will be devoted to the Houston zoo system. This land will support the large African animals (lions, hoofed stock, elephants) that require more space than Hermann Park has to offer, en­dangered species, and native wildlife (deer, turkeys, javelinas). Visitors will view the animals from cars, safariland style, and from elevated walkways and footpaths.

DALLAS

Big D has a Big Z where, last year, 2062 specimens were admired by 600,000 visitors. Among the assets of the Dallas Zoo are rolling terrain, a meandering stream, large native trees, USDA approval for importation of hoofed stock, and a successful breed­ing program for many rare animals.

The menagerie includes at least one of almost everything that boarded the Ark. Of special interest is the large collection of extremely rare specimens that Dallas not only houses but, in many cases, also manages to breed. Of seventeen okapis in the United States, Dallas has five, and has birthed seven since 1960. Other rare specimens in­clude sable antelope, dama gazelle, onagers (wild asses), nilghai antelope, greater kudus, muntjac deer (from China), and saiga antelope (from Russia).

Dallas’ gorilla breeding has been markedly successful: six babies so far. Orangutans have also produced off­spring and proboscis monkeys have multiplied and been fruitful. The first clouded leopards born in captivity call Dallas home, as do a pair of white leopards, a genetic rarity, born to black parents. Pigmy hippos have hearkened to the call of spring as have the flamingos, resulting in the world’s first flamingo chicks hatched in captivity.

Some of the exhibits at the Dallas Zoo merit special attention. The ani­mal nursery in the primate area houses infant gorillas and red-headed orangu­tans wearing diapers and holding bottles. A camel hill has been built for families of both bactrian and dromedary camels, guanocos, llamas, alpacas, and vicunas. Huge flight pens give visitors a look at the gigantic Andean condors, which make local buzzards look like canaries. The bird and reptile building, completed in 1966, houses more rattlesnakes than any other place save the great out­doors. Birds inhabit a tropical free-flight area as well as large cages formed from vertical strands of piano wire. Additional bird exhibits—almost completed—will be tall, circular, out­door aviaries, each containing ground- and tree-dwelling bird species, which can live together without competing for food or nesting space.

Dallas and the Future

Dallas, like Texas’ other established zoos, is working to refurbish existing facilities by removing bars and sub­stituting moats, grades, and other amenities. Here also they prefer group­ing animals in natural settings. Change is taking place steadily as monies are available. Some $2½ million has been spent over the last ten years.

BROWNSVILLE’S GLADYS PORTER ZOO

The Gladys Porter Zoo in Browns­ville is a different breed of cat. Unlike the institutions in San Antonio, Fort Worth, Houston, and Dallas, it is a brand new zoo and it did not begin haphazardly by adopting homeless animals. Rather, the Earl C. Sams Foundation (he was the chairman of the board of J. C. Penney’s), headed by his daughter, Gladys Porter, fi­nanced and then gave to the city in 1971 a zoo whose main raison d’etre is the preservation and propagation of endangered, and rare species.

It began when the foundation bought 26½  acres of slums on an old channel (or resaca) of the Rio Grande. Then, with the help of architects, planners, and zoo and city fathers, they created a paradise for animals. Habitats are separated by moats, which are alive with native frogs and fish, elevated walkways, and barriers luxuriously camouflaged with bougainvillea. En­closures have been designed so that groups of animals appear to be shar­ing the same space, while in fact they are separated by hidden barriers. The moderate climate in the Rio Grande Valley reduces the need for extensive housing (most of it carefully hidden) so that most of the animals exist as naturally as they would in the wild, except that they don’t have to watch for predators.

The zoo is populated with young, paired breeding stock, many of which have produced offspring. Brownsville has not attempted to display one of every animal known to man, but has limited acquisitions to those species that need to he replenished. The en­vironment is designed to encourage the animals to mate and raise families. Apparently it works because zoos all over the United States are sending mateless specimens to Gladys Porter for honeymoons.

While everyone expects to see exotic rarities, such as Siberian tigers, low­land gorillas, jaguars, and reticulated giraffes here, many are surprised by the vast numbers of oddities, includ­ing uakaris (Amazon monkeys), zebra duikers (African antelopes), Patago­nian cavies (South American rodent), Reeves muntjac deer, cantiles (Mexi­can moccasin snakes), capuchins (South American monkeys), and a few gaur (Indonesian wild cattle). Zoo specimens range in size from the In­dian rhino to the red-kneed tarantula.

ABILENE’S NELSON PARK ZOO

While zoo planners in Detroit had to worry about animals freezing, and planners in Brownsville had to worry about animals sweltering, planners in Abilene had to worry about animals blowing away. Hence the new Nelson Park Zoo has a low profile—no windswept mountain peaks here. Ad­jacent to a blue lagoon, a rarity itself in these parts, the zoo features moated and multilevel exhibits. Its design won the Texas Society of Architects Award in 1968.

The zoo’s collection is small but with representative species from the world’s principal geographic areas. Not to be missed is the Southwestern Habitat, which includes prairie dogs, raccoons, badgers, many types of deer, javelinas, and native birds, all of which probably find life cushier at the zoo than on the outskirts of Abilene. The lake itself is a living part of the zoo, and its bird population increases dramatically when Yankees fly south for the winter.

Texas is the only state in the Union with five major zoos. These zoos and their personnel are well known and re­spected and have considerable in­fluence on zoo thought throughout the United States. As you travel through Texas take a look at your zoos. As a matter of fact, joining a local zool­ogical society (about $10 a year) will in most cases enable you to enter other participating Texas zoos free.

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