In Cameron Park Zoo, lions lounge where high school football teams once practiced. Bears swim by a waterfall in what used to be a brush thicket. And at a pond where a boy used to catch snakes and daydream of being a zookeeper, gibbon apes swing on trees to the amusement of a quarter-million visitors a year.

Twenty years after the natural habitat zoo opened in Cameron Park, the zoo has exceeded the dreams of its original visionaries, becoming Waco’s largest tourist attraction and a respected haven for endangered species.

“We dreamed pretty high, but when I see the product we now have it floors me,” said zoo director emeritus Tim Jones, the snake-chaser who grew up to be Cameron Park Zoo’s first director in July 1993. “I didn’t dream high enough. . . . I’ve been to about 100 zoos and aquariums, and this to me is the prettiest zoo I’ve ever been to.”

As the zoo celebrates its anniversary with a series of events during the next year, zoo officials also are sketching out a vision focused less on adding animals than on educating visitors about wild animals and their shrinking habitat.

“We’re not going to be able to get people to care what’s going on with wildlife on the plains and jungles of the world unless they have that inner connection with the animals,” zoo director Jim Fleshman said. “That’s what we’re trying to do, to inspire people.”

Fleshman said the 52-acre zoo has room for more exhibits and he would like to see the facility gradually add animals such as baboons, bonobos or gorillas.

He said major new exhibits such as the orangutans and the Brazos River Country section have helped push annual attendance from about 130,000 to above 250,000 since he came in 2000. With more attractions, attendance could someday grow as high as 400,000 visitors a year.

But with 2,000 animals already on display, the zoo’s priority has shifted to building a veterinary hospital and an education center catering to school tours, which account for nearly 100,000 visits to the zoo each year.

The education facility, which has yet to be designed or funded, could cost between $3 million and $4 million and feature auditorium and laboratory space as well as satellite uplinks to scientists in the field.

“It would be pretty fantastic to have kids in Waco watching a researcher immobilize a tapir in the jungles of Brazil, do a complete health check and then put a radio collar on it,” Fleshman said.

“You could have researchers talking about what they’re seeing, and then kids could go to a website and track where that animal went over a year. That’s being able to show kids how science takes place in the real world, not in a TV kind of way.”

Fleshman said the zoo doesn’t just educate about conservation but participates in it.

As a zoo accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, Cameron Park Zoo is part of a worldwide system for breeding endangered species, including orangutans, rhinos, king vultures, rhinos, bears and big cats.

The zoo supports wildlife conservation efforts in Africa, Southeast Asia, Mexico and the Caribbean, as well as in Central Texas.

For example, the zoo is helping build a platform for eagles at Lake Waco and has reintroduced a garter snake to the Lake Waco Wetlands that disappeared from the county decades ago.

Previous facility

Conservation has been part of the zoo’s DNA even before there was a Cameron Park Zoo, general curator Johnny Binder said.

Binder was a longtime worker at Central Texas Zoo, the predecessor of Cameron Park Zoo and the source of some of its current animals such as a tortoise and a king vulture.

The old zoo was started in 1955, an era when the public expected nothing more than a collection of exotic animals in cages, usually grouped by taxonomy rather than by region.

Central Texas Zoo, originally operated by a nonprofit board, ran on a shoestring budget and kept animals in enclosures of concrete and chain link. Still, Binder said that’s where the vision for Cameron Park Zoo hatched.

“I’ve heard pretty negative stuff about the old zoo and its rough beginnings, but by and large it really helped us to move forward and get here,” he said. “We were the first zoo to hatch a bald eagle in Texas and we bred endangered cats.”

The idea for Cameron Park Zoo was born amid a financial crisis. The Central Texas Zoo operated with a city contribution since 1964, but by the late 1970s, the zoo was so strapped for cash that officials warned it might close without additional public funding.

Jones came back as director in 1976 to the zoo where he had volunteered and worked years before, having gained experience at the Houston and Lufkin zoos. But he saw the zoo had problems with meeting payroll and modern zoo standards.

“I wasn’t sure I should unpack all my bags,” he said.

He met with Humane Society officials who had complained about conditions at the zoo and pledged to work with them to make improvements.

A county referendum in 1979 found strong support for county funding, and the city of Waco took over management of the zoo the next year, acting in partnership with the nonprofit board.

But zoo supporters in the meantime were scoping out Cameron Park with the idea of a natural habitat zoo. In 1980, they hired a national firm to study the “Green Lake” area of Cameron Park, which had ballfields, a football practice field, an abandoned 
Kiwanis swimming pool and a drained pond.

The consultant strongly recommended relocating the zoo there, saying that it could be turned into an accessible, beautiful site without destroying the park’s natural beauty.

Waco City Council moved forward with the project in the early 1980s and placed it on a city referendum in 1983. Voters rejected the proposal, but zoo backers continued dreaming and adjusting the zoo’s design, incorporating the latest thinking of how to blend the human and animal experience in a naturalistic habitat.

“I knew that once we got the idea across of the type of zoo we wanted to build, people with money and power would see that and want to be a part of it,” Jones said.

In the meantime, the Central Texas Zoo received its coveted accreditation by the AZA in 1986.

1988 bond election

A $9.6 million county bond election passed in 1988, with the understanding that the city of Waco would help fund zoo operations. The architectural firm Design Consortium developed a master plan with the city and zoo board.

City Manager Larry Groth was city engineer at the time and helped with the planning and construction. He said the zoo board wisely insisted on building top-quality infrastructure from the beginning, even if it meant postponing the construction of attractions such as Brazos River Country.

County voters were asked for another $9.5 million in a 2000 bond election to build that signature project, which traces the habitats of the Brazos basin from the Panhandle to the Gulf of Mexico.

The exhibit set a new standard for the zoo by incorporating visitors into the animal’s habitat. It includes a “sunken galleon” where visitors can view ocean fish; a walk-through aviary with birds of the Gulf Coast; an otter pond with a clear tube slide for children; and close-up viewing areas for alligators and black bears.

Since then, the zoo has added another major attraction, the $3.3 million orangutan and Komodo dragon display in a habitat that resembles a ruined temple. Most of the construction money came from private donors.

The new exhibits greatly increased attendance, though the city’s contribution to the zoo has increased through the years to a proposed $1.7 million in the coming year. But Groth said the zoo has paid off in terms of education, tourism and community pride.

Groth, who served as zoo director from 1995 to 2000, said the success of the zoo in the new location wasn’t a sure thing.

“It far exceeded my expectations,” he said. “Getting it started was greater, but the worry is, can you keep the progress up? Fortunately, the community supported the bond issues and a lot of fundraising.”

Hays Caldwell, director of the nonprofit Caldwell Zoo in Tyler, said Cameron Park Zoo has gained an enviable level of community support and is respected nationwide.

“I think what they’ve accomplished is nothing short of remarkable when you think back to where the original zoo was,” he said. “I think they’ve definitely reached their goal. In years gone by, when they were planning the zoo, they came several times to visit the Caldwell Zoo. Twenty years later we look to them for some guidance.”

Caldwell visits the zoo every time he passes through Waco and is especially impressed with the orangutan exhibit and reptile house.

He said this generation of zoos is vital to preserving species threatened in the wild.

“I think they make quite a bit of difference,” he said. “You think of large zoos making a big impact on conservation, but small-to-medium-sized zoos are just as important.”

In the next decade, Cameron Park Zoo officials say, they want to increase their conservation efforts in Central Texas, perhaps including reintroducing horned toads and helping restore the Blackland Prairie ecosystem.

“It would be hard for us to expound on conservation in other countries if we’re not doing it in our own backyard,” Fleshman said.

Jones, who now lives in Blum, said the zoo has set a good example for conservation by preserving trees and other natural features at its own site.

Jones’ family moved to the Cameron Park area when he was 15, and he remembers hearing rumors that the park once had a zoo.

“I used to get on my bike, going around looking for the zoo,” he said. “I remember going to Green Lake with a cane pole, and I would watch Waco High play games where the African veldt is now. I would sit and dream of a zoo in Cameron Park.

“It’s amazing how I grew up doing that and that I ended up becoming a part of the design and building of it.”

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Cameron Park Zoo timeline

1955: Central Texas Zoo starts, with exhibit at Heart O’ Texas Fairgrounds, then moves to a 25th Street pet shop.

1956: Permanent zoo opens at former Blackland Army Base fire station with monkeys, baboon, lions, fox, wolves.

1960: Fire forces relocation of zoo to a city site next to the municipal airport.

1964: Zoo, supported by donations, almost goes broke, leading to $1,250 monthly city contribution. Zoo has 500 animals.

1974: Donation of lions, elephant, zebra, hippo, chimp, llama, monkeys, tiger.

1976: Tim Jones becomes zoo director, position he held a decade earlier.

November 1979: After financial crisis at zoo, voters OK county measure to dedicate 1.5 cents of tax rate to zoo. Zoo board discusses possible move and natural habitat zoo.

October 1980: City parks department takes over management of zoo.

Dec. 1, 1980: ZooPlan Associates does environmental assessment of Green Lake site for new zoo; projects 200,000 visitors to 52-acre zoo.

January 1982: City council approves ZooPlan’s design for a park zoo.

Nov. 8, 1983: Waco voters reject 9-cent tax increase for natural habitat zoo.

1985: Zoo attendance reaches 66,068.

October 1986: Central Texas Zoo wins AZA accreditation

November 1988: County voters approve Cameron Park Zoo bond, $9.6 million.

July 13, 1993: Zoo designed by Design Consortium opens, but without signature Brazos River Country exhibit.

1997: Herpetarium opens with $1.3 million in interest from original bond

1998: A $600,000 African lion exhibit opens, with funding from Sam Jack McGlasson’s family.

2000: Cameron Park Zoological and Botanical Society commits $350,000 for South American exhibit and $400,000 for lemur island. County voters approve $9.5 million bond for zoo expansion.

Summer 2005: Brazos River Country exhibit opens, improving zoo attendance.

August 2009: $3.3 million Asian Forest exhibit opens with orangutans and Komodo dragons. Funding is one-third public funds, two-thirds private donations.

July 2013: Zoo kicks off yearlong celebration of 20th anniversary.

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