History of the Zoo
The Texas Zoo had its beginnings in 1957 when James L. Yates, who ran a packing plant near Foster Field, donated an African lioness to Mayor W.R. McCright. The Mayor decided that Victoria should have a zoo and approached the Lions Club, who provided a cage. Fire Marshall L.B. Richardson was assigned responsibility and the Victoria City Zoo was born. Sid Drew was hired to operate the zoo.
In 1962, B.E. Leissner, a local pharmacist, and Lester A. Bugs Meis, a local pest control operator, who were active members of the Junior Chamber of Commerce and had supported zoo development from the beginning, proposed creation of a Zoo Commission to oversee operations and planning. The City council agreed and appointed City Manager John Lee and former Mayor W.R. McCright to the Commission along with Leissner and Meis. The Commission immediately renamed the zoo the Victoria Children’s Zoo and initiated a fund raising drive for expansion. Expansion plans called for a monkey island, snake house, large bird area, and cages for large animals. Visitors from 107 cities, 19 states, and Germany signed the guest register in the first nine days of the Children’s Zoo, demonstrating the value of the zoo as a tourist attraction. The Zoo grew to include many species that were housed in barred/wired cages and pens. Bears, Barbados sheep, a camel, Russian Boars, an Anaconda, monkeys, parrots, parakeets, penguins, and peacocks were gradually accumulated. Many were donated, including the pair of bears donated in 1959 by Tom O’Connor and Victoria Bank and Trust Company. Over the years the O’Connor brothers, Dennis and Tom, were consistent, strong supporters of Victoria’s zoo.
The Animal Kingdom Building was opened to the public on May 31, 1968. Mehrtens noted that the building was home to some 200 animals of 85 different species, including Moustache monkeys, Bahama land crabs, Fennec fox, Discus fish, and African chameleon.
The Texas Zoo opened in June 1976 with natural habitat exhibits in the areas surrounding the Animal Kingdom Building. About $750,000 had been raised to construct the zoo, almost all through donations and grants. Robert Thomas, John Killough, Bob Woodman, Kathleen Grimes, Paco Buhler, and David Smith led this successful fund raising. While funds raised met the original goal, rapid cost escalation during this period of time resulted in money being insufficient to accomplish the original scope.The decision was made to reduce scope, rather than sacrifice the quality of construction, hoping to complete the project at a later date. The second phase of construction was never completed.
In June 1984, The Texas Zoo was designated The National Zoo of Texas by the 68th Texas Legislature. Legislation was sponsored by Representative Ken Armbrister and signed by Governor Mark White.
A lot of history has happened here at The Texas Zoo. We invite you to become part of this wonderful story of struggle and triumph!
Board of Directors
Jimmy Zaplac, President
Mary Thomas, Secretary
Terese Arnecke, Treasurer