Situated along the Trout River on the Northside, the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens has been the city’s top cultural attraction for many years.
The local zoo’s history dates all the way back to 1914, when it debuted as the Municipal Zoo within Henry J. Klutho Park – then known as Springfield Park – with its sole exhibit, a red deer fawn. The zoo expanded to include some domestic animals and a “monkey island,” but it soon became clear that locating the city’s zoo within a residential park wasn’t going to work in the long-term.
The city acquired a 37.5-acre parcel of land along the Trout River and moved the zoo out of Springfield and onto the new property. Not long after the move, the zoo made its first big acquisition: a female Asian elephant.
The zoo expanded rapidly over the following decades, acquiring more land and amassing a collection of hundreds of exotic animals – by the ‘60s, it had arguably the best assortment of animals of any zoo in the Southeast, which when paired with its amusement rides made it by far the area’s most intriguing attraction.
Unfortunately, by the ‘60s, the zoo was also in dire financial straits. The city formed a committee to develop a plan for putting the zoo back on the right path financially; by 1971, this committee evolved into the Jacksonville Zoological Society, a nonprofit organization that took over management of the zoo from the city.
Sure enough, the new public-private partnership arrangement was able to get the zoo back on track. By the early ‘90s, the zoo had initiated fundraising for a major redevelopment project.
The $22.5 million project, funded by the city’s River City Renaissance plan as well as private donations from businesses such as Pepsi and Winn-Dixie, expanded the zoo’s property to just under 90 acres and added new aviary and ape exhibits, a new wetlands attraction, an animal medical center, and a new front entrance configuration. Work began in 1992 and the final phase of the project was completed in 2001. As part of the project, the zoo was renamed Jacksonville Zoological Gardens in 1993.
Shortly after one final renaming, this time to Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens, the zoo’s signature attraction, Range of the Jaguar, opened in 2004 as the country’s largest jaguar exhibit. It won a 2005 exhibit of the year award from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
The zoo celebrated its 100-year anniversary in 2014 with the launch of its Land of the Tiger exhibit. In 2017, it added North Florida’s first critical care center for manatees.
Renovations to the front entrance, along with additional garden space, will debut next year.
Today, the zoo has expanded to feature well over a thousand animals and 92 acres of land, with an additional 28 acres set to be developed in the future. It attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors annually, and its gardens are among the area’s most popular wedding destinations.
Being born in St. Lukes hospital in 1954, my first nine years of life were wondrous in a city not too small, and not too big. Skating at the Southside rink off Mary street and eating hotdogs under the Treaty tree will live with me forever. Sorry to say not much is left of those bygone days when life was slower and stresses less. You lose history when progress for the sake of progress overrides memories for the future. The city has outgrown its past and embraced an unknown future where the potholes are large and plentiful. Keep up the good work