The Texas Zoo promotes tourism and conservation while providing educational benefits and an enjoyable way to spend a day for the entire community.
As the zoo opens again after being temporarily closed because of the coronavirus, and the staff takes precautionary steps for the safety of the animals and visitors, one cannot help but remember that the zoo only recently overcame the devastation caused by the last catastrophe: Hurricane Harvey.
The floodwaters and high winds of Hurricane Harvey wreaked havoc on the small zoo to the tune of about $700,000. Liz Jensen, executive director, arrived to a chaotic scene at the zoo six weeks after the hurricane hit. Because of the extensive damage, she started her new job with a blank slate, she said. Insurance and a huge outpouring from the community, both local and national, helped them rebuild.
“Multiple zoos came to support us with equipment, supplies and labor. They took animals off the property for us,” Jensen said. “Once the zoo was reconstructed, overall, we got a new zoo.”
Jensen had the opportunity not only to fulfill the existing mission of the zoo but also to pioneer ways of engaging the community to make the zoo a better resource. Parts of the zoo that had not been well maintained for the prior decade were reconstructed, she said. For example, the building that housed the Animal Kingdom was gutted and became the Wildlife Encounters Building that focuses on connecting people to animals.
“We had the opportunity to redefine what we are going to be,” she said. “Our mantra is learn, connect, protect. When people learn and connect with the animals one-on-one, they are more likely to want to protect them. Our strategy is to change everyday behaviors so they are better for conservation.”
At zoos, visitors are often mostly spectators, but once they engage with an animal, something happens. An emotional bond is created that is powerful in terms of awareness of conservation, Jensen said. They are inspired or motivated to help do something – whether it’s donating to the conservation of a particular species, going straw-less or becoming more mindful of their carbon footprint.
Some of the interactive programs incur an additional charge to help support the zoo and its programs and bring in more qualified staff. Proper nutrition for the animals, improved habitats and the medical care program all take money, she said. The interactive program generates revenue and transforms people’s perceptions of the animals, wildlife and the environment. Eventually, the goal is to donate a percentage of the proceeds to the boots-on-the-ground conservation of endangered species.
For now, the interactions with the animals have stopped to protect them from COVID-19, but Jensen hopes to resume them in the future.
While the zoo adheres to USDA standards, Jensen said the ultimate goal is accreditation by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums – the gold standard.
“It’s a rigorous process that takes years,” Jensen said. “We are actively putting protocols into place to be parallel with the standards that exceed USDA standards.”
The Association of Zoos and Aquariums examines every aspect of the zoo, from animal care, staff qualifications and educational programming to the number of people reached and financial stability, Jensen said.
One obstacle to accreditation is the current location of the zoo because it is highly vulnerable to flooding. Ten acres were donated near the Victoria Regional Airport for the future site of the zoo. The staff members and other interested parties are working to develop plans and a vision for the future.
“We are actively making plans right now to define what that looks like,” Jensen said. “Truthfully, the Texas Zoo has an incredible opportunity to develop into something that would attract tourism. We’re in a fantastic location in the Crossroads with several major cities just hours away, and we have the opportunity to help Victoria become a bigger destination and want to work closely with city and other entities in the future.”
Jensen’s vision is for the Texas Zoo to become a teaching zoo.
“Students could come and learn about zoo-keeping and get the hands-on portion of their education,” Jensen said. “We are already starting to work on bridging the gap between what goes on at the zoo versus what goes on in the field.”
Jensen has worked to improve the education department, start interactive programs with the animals, initiate an animal cognition program to showcase the animals’ intelligence and designate a place for evening events, according to a prior Victoria Advocate article.
The current staff has the academic background to support the important work of the zoo. Three of the staff members have master’s degrees, one is earning a master’s degree and another is working toward a doctoral degree. Jensen also earned her master’s degree. She has incorporated much of what she has learned getting her biology degree with a strong emphasis on conservation into the zoo’s educational programs.
“Instead of an entertainment venue, I could see the facility more like a reality show,” she said of her vision for the zoo. “Visitors could come in and get immersed in what happens at the zoo, research, the real deal. The real stuff is exciting, and that is where you have the most transformation in terms of people’s attitudes toward animals and conservation.”
The Victoria Advocate appreciates the vision and work of the Texas Zoo staff and encourages the community to continue supporting the valuable community resource.