Houston Zoo - Past, Present and Future

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When over 2,000 AZA delegates come to town in September they will see a very different Zoo than the last time the national conference was in Houston in 1976. To fully appreciate just how far we have come, let’s start from the beginning. It began in 1922 with a bison named Earl who was donated by a traveling circus. A fence was erected in Hermann Park to house an odd assortment of snakes, birds and alligators purchased by the City.
Formerly referred to as the Hermann Park Zoo, it was a city-operated zoo and free to all visitors until 1989. The first staff member was a German zookeeper named Hans Nagel, who quickly built up the collection and became the first Zoo manager/director. Hans was quite a showman and did both lion and elephant shows for the public. He purchased the Zoo’s first Asian elephant in 1925 and named it Hans. Hans, the elephant, died in 1979 at the age of 65. Hans, the Zoo manager, died in November 1941 in a gun fight on Zoo grounds. There is quite a story behind his demise, but let’s suffice it to say that he died with his zoo boots on. Only in Texas!

In the 1930s the Zoo increased in size to about 30 acres and had a large aviary as its focal point. The aviary had some unique concrete sculpted trees that are still present today in the flamingo and shoebill stork exhibits. During this time, the first Natural History Museum was built on Zoo grounds along with a lion and elephant house.

In 1942 a second Zoo manager was hired, Tom Baylor. The 1950s saw a boon in construction as the Zoo added a primate house, bear moats, feline house, hippo pool, giraffe house, waterfowl pond, sea lion pool and concession area. The first major indoor exhibit building was the reptile house in 1960.
Coinciding with all the Zoo improvements in the 1960s and 70s was the arrival of the Zoo’s third and longest tenured director, John Werler. John was hired in 1956 as the general curator and became the Zoo manager in 1963. John was a well-known celebrity in town and appeared on weekly TV shows with his favorite reptiles and other critters. John and his Swedish born wife, Ingrid, ran the Zoo as a family and were loved and respected by all. He was one of the longest serving zoo directors, retiring in 1993 after 30 years. John was a very special and talented individual who loved his snakes. Just before he died in 2003 he published his definitive book on Texas snakes.
During the tenure of John Werler the Houston Zoo added a small mammal house (now called Natural Encounters), a tropical bird house, Children’s Zoo, rhino exhibit, large cat exhibits, vet clinic and aquarium. The Brown Education Center was dedicated in 1988, a gift from the former Zoological Society of Houston.

In January 1989, after being accredited by the AAZPA, the Houston Zoo initiated a public admission fee of $2.50 for adults and 50 cents for children. In 1993, Don Olson became the fourth Zoo manager. Don was formerly the director of parks and recreation and during that time he approved the expansion of the Zoo to its present size of 55 acres. That same year the Zoo unveiled its first modern immersion zoo exhibit with the opening of Wortham World of Primates. This $7.5 million addition was the most expensive project to date and was designed by AZA commercial member of Jones and Jones. The lead architect was a young Jim Brighton who has since gone on to work at PJA Architects and is presently designing our African Forest habitats.

The 1990s also saw the $1.2 million renovation of the Janice Seuber McNair Asian Elephant facility, as well as extensive renovations of the Aquarium and Tropical Bird House. Many of these improvements were financed through the popular Zoo Ball parties put on by the incredible Zoo Friends organization. Just before the end of the 1990s a new gift shop and office administration building was added at the front entrance as well as a koala building – thanks to the fundraising efforts of the Zoological Society of Houston.
The first decade of the 21st Century brought about even more change. Don Olson retired and Rick Barongi was hired from the Walt Disney Company as the Zoo’s fifth Zoo director. Rick’s one condition of employment was permission to create a task force to privatize the Zoo. Two years later in July 2002, the Houston Zoo became a private non-profit organization with a 50-year lease and operating agreement from the City. This public/private partnership has proven to be mutually beneficial for everyone and allowed the Zoo to undertake the most ambitious scope of improvements in its entire history.
In 2000 the Zoo opened up the $6.5 million John P. McGovern Children’s Zoo and just kept going improving with the addition of Komodo Dragons (2001), okapi (2002), spectacled bear (2003), giant eland (2004), sea lion renovation, large cat viewing, Wildlife carousel (2004), Natural Encounters (2005, AZA Exhibit award), African wild dog (2007), elephant barn (2008), jaguar (2010), shoebill and comprehensive landscaping, lighting and interpretive signage improvements. In the first eight years after privatization the Zoo added $40 million in capital improvements.

After privatization the new Houston Zoo, Inc. Board, under the direction of its first Chairman, Bill Barnett, added a president/CEO position to work with the Zoo director. The first president was Philip Cannon (2002-2004). Philip was a great spokesperson for the Zoo and greatly elevated our stature in the community. He was succeeded by Deborah Cannon in 2005 (no relation) a former president with Bank of America. Deborah’s passion and talent has helped the Zoo become one of the most successful nonprofit organizations in the City. Today we have an operating budget of $26 million and employ 350 full-time employees.

What do we do next? In December 2010 we will open the first phase of the African Forest immersion habitat. This six-acre, $40 million project will include chimpanzees, white rhinos, giraffe, and kudu antelope as well as a large African-themed restaurant, gift shop and trading post and overnight camping area. It will also have a state-of-the-art closed circuit video system that will capture animal and keeper activities 24 hours a day and broadcast them to the nearby Children’s hospitals.

The Houston Zoo has come a long way since that first bison and has even more ambitious plans for the next decade. None of this would have been possible without an incredible staff, board and volunteers to implement all these changes. Getting the right people “on the bus” was the real key to all our recent accomplishments. Our staff is very proud of the Houston Zoo and can’t wait to give you a taste of Texas hospitality when you visit in September.