The next 50 years: Gladys Porter Zoo unveils extensive master plan

The Gladys Porter Zoo will receive a substantial makeover of its existing footprint according to a new 10-year master plan unveiled on Wednesday.

Among the many changes contained in the multi-phased plan is a greatly expanded lion exhibit to be located at the current site of the zoo’s camel yard, which once upon a time held elephants.

Jay Dertinger of Seattle-based PJA Architects, who designed the master plan with input from the zoo staff and board of directors, the city and community members, described the camel yard as a desolate and underutilized space. The redesign will also include covered viewing areas so visitors don’t have to view the animals from a resaca boardwalk, as is the case now.

“The exhibit also includes a brand new nocturnal exhibit where people can get out of the sun and into an air conditioned space to see animals up close that aren’t currently in the zoo’s collection,” Dertinger said.

A white-handed gibbon hangs out in his exhibit at Gladys Porter Zoo on Wednesday, Oct. 5, 2022, in Brownsville. (Miguel Roberts/The Brownsville Herald)

Dr. Pat Burchfield, the zoo’s executive director, who wasn’t able to attend Wednesday’s event, said in a presentation to the Brownsville city commission the night before that the new larger, lion exhibit isn’t merely good for the animals and zoo visitors , but it is essential if the zoo wants to keep having lions and remain accredited, thanks to increasingly strict requirements by the accrediting body, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

Tighter AZA standards were the reason Gladys Porter Zoo had to find a new home for its last elephant, Ruth, more than 15 years ago. Burchfield said losing AZA accreditation would be a serious blow to the zoo’s world-renowned rare and endangered animal breeding program.

Another big feature of the master plan is a complete overhaul of the zoo’s Small World exhibit, which Dertinger described as “in dire need of restoration.”

“It’s an older, aging exhibit,” he said. “We’re going to completely re-imagine this as a new African village.”

The new and improved Small World will boast a new meerkat exhibit, naked mole rats(!) and an inclusive play area for kids to indulge in all kinds of activities, a sensory garden and quiet room plus a number of other amenities for special-needs children and adults. Another aspect of the master plan zoo officials are touting is a 150-foot-tall, two-seater zip line that will allow guests to soar over the animal exhibits while getting a great view of the surrounding city at the same time.

The zip line will cost around $800,000 and is actually the first phase of the master plan, Dertinger said, noting that the zoo is already in talks with the manufacturer. Phase two, estimated at $12 million, encompasses the new lion, nocturnal and Small World exhibits as well as expansion of the zoo’s Huasteca area and relocation of ocelot and Small World animals.

Phase three ($4.2 million) includes a new cape hunting dog exhibit, relocation of the mandrill exhibit and construction of a restaurant. Phase four ($9 million) calls for relocation of the zoo’s animal care facility, while phase five ($4.8 million) includes an event center, renovation of the tiger exhibit, a “kudu pavilion and boardwalk” and giraffe feeding platform.

A lion is seen in his exhibit at Gladys Porter Zoo on Wednesday, Oct. 5, 2022, in Brownsville. (Miguel Roberts/The Brownsville Herald)

Brownsville Mayor Trey Mendez, who spoke during the master plan unveiling, said overall the improvements will cost roughly $25 million over the 10-year, phased timeline.

“I don’t think we’re going to have a big problem raising that money, whether that’s through private benefactors, foundations or city allocations,” he said. “I don’t really see too much of a barrier to getting that part accomplished. Everybody loves the zoo. Certainly the city loves the zoo. … Over the course of the last couple of years we have committed $5 million to the zoo for infrastructure and other drainage improvements.”

Another, much more expensive, aspect of the master plan has to do with expanding beyond the zoo’s existing footprint, which would entail acquiring land from the Brownsville Independent School District currently the site of BISD’s Career and Technical Education Certification Center at Cummings. Expansion plans call for a parking structure, new administration building and zoo entry in phase one, followed by a tunnel over East Ringgold Street, creation of either an African savanna exhibit with hooved animals or an African forest exhibit inhabited by Western lowland gorillas in phase two , and a themed hotel and resaca boardwalk with restaurants and retail in phase three.

Suzanne Shepard, president of the Valley Zoological Society, which serves as the zoo’s board of directors, said the new master plan is “the key to the future of Gladys Porter Zoo.”

Burchfield stated in a press release that he’s very excited about launching the zoo’s next 50 years with the city’s support and for the benefit of “the Brownsville community and beyond.”

“When this master plan is completed, the new Gladys Porter Zoo will look significantly different,” he said. “It will give our visitors — mostly families and children — an elevated awareness and appreciation for wildlife and their natural environments. It will also provide more in the way of entertainment and unique animal interactions with more stops along the way to cool off. Thanks in large part to the city of Brownsville, the zoo will remain a great source of pride within our community.”

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