Rock Zoo Sets Sights on Improvements
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Falling on the heels of accreditation problems with the American Zoo Association (AZA), the Little Rock Zoo is taking new strides to improve its image. The Little Rock Zoological Garden had modest beginnings in 1926, with the donation of an abandoned timber wolf and a retired circus-trained brown bear. The arrival of the first two exhibits started what is today Arkansas' largest public and privately funded zoo. The early 1930's brought bigger animals to the zoo, like Rocky the Lion and Ruth the Elephant. The park was then known as the Fair Park Zoological Garden and its meager beginnings have today yielded a sprawling 40-acre theme park. The park includes animal exhibits, rides and concession stands. The zoo lies west of the Arkansas River near Arkansas' Traveler Field and sits snuggly between Fair Park and I-630. The park is located at #1 Jonesboro Drive in Little Rock.
The Fair Park Zoo first started building its reputation in 1939 with inter-zoo relations with the public zoo in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida and other groups like the Clyde Beatty Circus Unit of Atlantic City New Jersey. The Fair Park Zoo's Rocky the Lion made a lasting impression on Circus coordinator Clyde Beauty, who in turn responded by writing a letter to the new zoo complimenting it on Rocky's treatment and demeanor. These first accolades paved the way for the arrival of the first chimpanzees, Dagwood and Blondie, who arrived in 1940. In 1952 came Big Arkie, the largest alligator in U.S. Zoos at 13 feet long, and weighing in at 459 pounds. The early 30's also brought with it the first of what would be an ongoing expansion project with the completion of display units, like the ones built by the newly created Works Progress Administration formed under the Roosevelt administration. The WPA built the first two of seven animal confines planned for the Fair Park Zoo. The first two display units were completed in March of 1931 and were known as "Dry Moats". The dry moats housed such animal exhibits as the ones for the tortoises and prairie dogs. Today, the tortoises and prairie dogs have new display areas, compliments of funding from zoo supporters.
The Fair Park Zoo became the Little Rock Zoo in May of 1968 with the construction of the entrance to the new zoo complex. The Little Rock Zoo credits its growth and longevity to the help of such civic organizations as the Civitan Club, The Junior League of Arkansas and the Friends Of the Zoo (FOZ) just to name a few. The Zoo continues to grow from the seed that was planted in 1926 by such people as the late W. R. Sprott, the first director of the zoo, and philanthropist M. P. Filiatreau. These men were two of the first pioneers to push the zoo forward and make it a mainstay of tourism and entertainment in Arkansas' capital city. The completion of the buffalo pen in September of 1932 brought about the first era of spatial and economic expansion for the garden. The completion of the buffalo pen was the first large construction project and was completed at a cost of $400. The zoo experienced exponential growth four years later in 1936 with the completion of the New Monkey House built at a cost of $65,000. Now, In 1999, there are almost 600 animals covering 170 species including animals still on the endangered species list. Exhibits at the Little Rock Zoo are the Asian red panda and the black rhino of Africa, (one of only 750 in the world). Today, the Little Rock Zoo has a budget of $7.5 million and plans to renovate the entire park. The complications with the AZA in 1997 were a result of reports in which the zoo was cited for falling below minimum standards for the upkeep and welfare of its animals. This, however, has not been a hindrance, but a springboard for the zoo to redesign a more comfortable environment for both the visitors and animal exhibits. The zoo is in the process of naturalizing all of its animal habitats and displays with open-air display areas. It seems as though the zoo is renovating from the top to bottom, by redesigning the larger, more popular exhibits first, and working its way down to the other, smaller exhibits. Some of the new renovations have already been completed. These renovations include the exhibits for all the Big Cats-like the new Metropolitan Lion exhibit for K.C. the male African lion, for whom zoo officials are searching for a mate. There are also the two new display areas; one for the two brother Siberian Tigers and one for the Jaguars. Also newly completed are the Civitan Amphitheater and the newly renovated Zoo Café.
The Zoo's 73-year history has been a continuous improvement effort marked by highlights and special events from famous people such as the "Wild Kingdom's" Marlin Perkins, former Governor Bill Clinton, Betty Bumpers, and Rosalynn Carter. Zoo events include activities like Zoo Days, Boo at the Zoo and Zoo Lights, sponsored by Jennings Osbourne of the Cantrell Christmas lights fame. It seems, however, that no visitor is more important to the zoo than thousands and thousands of patrons who pass through the gates each year to see the hundreds of animal attractions at the park.
Carroll Hargrove is now Interim Director of the Little Rock Zoo. The stately, grey haired gentleman has been an employee of the zoo for the past 25 years. The position he now occupies is in need of a qualified applicant, as Hargrove moves on to other duties as General Curator. When asked what the park's main focus was, Hargrove cited, "Recreation, conservation, research and education." I had the pleasure of meeting the man behind the scenes of the New Little Rock Zoo, which is doing a lot in the way of promoting its new exhibits and attractions around the city. There are banner promotions on light posts as you drive the streets of Little Rock. There are also TV commercials and a web site included in the package of promotion. The goal of the new media blitz is to increase the amount of visitors from around the state to visit the zoo. I remember visiting the zoo when as a kid of about 8 years old. I had a love for animals, particularly birds. I was happy to see the one winged Bald Eagle still living in relative peace in the zoo's aviary. A hunter shot the bird in the wing which was subsequently amputated when he came to the zoo. The Eagle was still protected and in good spirits at the zoo when I made my visit. I also remember the train ride and hot dogs, all of which are still very much a part of the zoo.
The Little Rock Zoo takes pride in the success of its breeding program, which is a very important part of zoos success as a self-sustainable entity. In 1986 there was the birth of Twin Tiger cubs. Also born that year was a 2nd generation Reticulated Giraffe and Edwina the baby Giant Anteater. In 1991 the 1st Albino Wallaby was born in to Little Rock Zoo family.
The Zoo offers plenty to do for everyone, both young and young at heart. Admission for adults 13 and older is $5.00, children 1-12 $3.00. Infants under 1 get in free. Zoo admission is free the last Saturday morning of every month until 11:30 am except during special events. There is the Zoopermarket Restaurant, Concerts, and rides to entertain crowds at the park. The New Little Rock Zoo has many ways to get active and get involved by becoming a member of Friends of the Zoo. Members receive free general admission not only to the Little Rock Zoo but also to over 100 other zoos around the country. Members also receive a newsletter, VIP status to special events and a 10% discount on gift items from the gift shop. You can find out more about how to become a member of FOZ by contacting 666-CATS, visiting their website at http://www.littlerockzoo.com or just stoping by one day when you're out and about and want to see what all wild noise is about.