Fort Worth Zoo

  • Nature, Animals & Parks
  • 1991

When the Fort Worth Zoo was owned and operated by the city, money was scarce, facilities were outdated, and attendance was dropping. In 1991, the middling public facility was almost forced to close due to lack of funds. Then Ramona Bass, a local animal lover from a wealthy family, suggested moving control of the zoo to a nonprofit association. More substantively, Bass suggested a new mission for the zoo. Frustrated by increasingly negative zoo narratives of people versus planet—a zero-sum game where one side prospers only at the expense of the other—she envisioned a facility that recognized shared interests between humans and animals, and “strengthened the bond between humans and the environment by promoting responsible stewardship of wildlife.”

Bass recruited impressive support from individuals and local businesses, built an unusually diverse board that included people like wildlife experts at corporations and professors of agriculture, and was able to create innovative programming that visitors could find nowhere else. The new zoo was simultaneously pro-animal and pro-human, with striking new displays that highlight harmonious co-existence, rather than walling off wildlife. (Their black bears, for instance, were placed in a facsimile of an abandoned lumbering camp, emphasizing recovery and intelligent adaptation.) Even the logo for the section of the zoo on Texas wildlife—a human hand print overlapping a coyote track—emphasizes mutual prosperity.

Since its transfer from public management, the association-run zoo has raised more than $20 million in private funding and opened 16 new permanent exhibits and facilities. Attendance has doubled, and the Fort Worth Zoo is now rated near the top in the U.S.