100 Years at the Zoo

The Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens celebrates their 100th anniversary this year. They’ve come a long way since their small beginnings. When the Jacksonville Zoo opened, it was in the midst of Springfield, and it was a very different zoo than the one we know today. We spoke with Alan Rost, The Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens Biological Programs Registrar and unofficial Jacksonville Zoo historian about the progress our Zoo has made over the last 100 years.

“When the zoo first opened, the vast majority of the animals were domesticated animals,” says Rost. The exotic species that they did have were mostly donated to the zoo from private owners. The zoo has kept a lot of different types of animals over the years, but the one species that has been in the zoo collection since 1914, says Rost, is the alligator. We don’t know the full roster of animals that were kept since 1914, because records before 1977 weren’t kept for posterity, but we do know that by 1916 they had raised enough funds to purchase some animals from the Atlanta Zoo. By 1916, smack in the middle of Springfield, there was a monkey island and a display of live black bears.

While it’s certainly exciting to think about a zoo set in the urban core, it has some disadvantages. There wasn’t much room to grow and, by 1924, local residents were complaining about the smell. That might have something to do with their move in 1925 to the current locale. Opening day of the zoo’s new digs saw thousands through their gates. By 1926 the Zoo added an Asian elephant called Miss Chic, bought, at least partially, through a school children’s penny drive.

Through the years the zoo has added gardens, a dock, a train, many animal exhibitions, the butterfly hollow, and more community programs. There’s a big difference today between the way animals used to be acquired and the the process the Association of Zoos and Aquariums facilitates today.

In the mid 20th century, Miami was a major hub in the exotic animal business, so by the late 1960s Jacksonville Zoo representatives would go down to Miami once every six months to buy wild-captured exotic species. Rost says that they went so often to replenish because “many of those animals would not last very long.” Although, he says that “some lasted for decades.” This occurred before the U.S. Endangered Species Act and was a fairly common practice for zoos of the time.

“Today we almost never purchase an animal,” says Rost. Most of the animals they acquire from other zoos, either on loan or as a donation. Often that’s the only way to get into a species. First they have to prove they have an appropriate environment, then once they obtain an animal on loan, they can then breed their own. Zoos cooperate throughout the country rather than buying and selling from dealers or each other as they did half a century ago. “How can you put a price on these animals?” asks Rost. “Some of them are literally priceless.”

The Jacksonville Zoo has contributed quite a bit to the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) breeding stock over the years, especially when it comes to Jaguars. In the mid-sixties through the 1980s you might have seen a jaguar named Zorro here at the Zoo, who Rost says is “the ancestor of the majority, if not close to all, of the black jaguars born in North American captivity.” In fact, one of his descendants lives in the Jacksonville Zoo today. Onca is a female black jaguar who came to the Zoo in 2001 at just two days old, from Baton Rouge.

One of the tenets of modern animal conservation is to avoid catering to boom and bust patterns. A type of animal will get really popular, sometimes because of media, and all the zoos will want that animal. All the zoos breed the animal, then the popularity fades, and they have too many. The zoo system strives to keep breeding steady, keeping a population of less popular animals and trying to limit fad breeding. Because regularly buying and selling exotic species is no longer an option for American zoos, Rost says that it’s important “to sustain these species in captivity for a much longer period of time. Most of the public don’t realize that roughly two-thirds of the mammals, half of the birds and half of the reptiles in AZA zoos are captive-born.” Because of regulation and species protection, capturing animals in the wild is a difficult prospect at best.

We asked Rost about the changes he’s seen personally at the zoo in the past 30 years. He says he’s seen three major shifts. First, the education and experience level of the staff has improved, even though he says the team that was around when he first arrived was a great and enthusiastic team. Second, says Rost, “it’s a much rarer collection.” The Zoo has added endangered species such as giant otter, bonobos, and Florida panthers, among many others. Lastly, today’s Zoo is much more involved in conservation efforts than it was 30 years ago. Although the Zoo did have a hand in conservation 30 years ago, they are far more involved outside the Zoo’s walls today, especially on a local Florida level. In 2003 they started supporting the Guyana Conservation Initiative and Wood Stork Conservation, along with continuing to raise awareness of world-wide conservation issues inside the zoo. By 2006 they started their still on-going Marine Animal Rescue program, working with U.S. Fish and Wildlife and the Florida Wildlife Conservation Commission, to save manatees and sea mammals.

The Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens has certainly come a long way since their beginnings in Springfield, on a small plot of land with just one red fawn in 1914. In 2014, they average between 1500 and 1600 animal specimens. During butterfly season, you can expect 2100-2300 specimens. As they mark 100 years this year, you’ll be seeing new and exciting exhibitions and animals, so take a day this summer to come out to the zoo and celebrate a Jacksonville institution!

About Erin Thursby