The Gladys Porter Zoo opened to the public on September 3, 1971. The facility was completely planned, built, stocked, equipped and then given to the City of Brownsville by the Earl C. Sams Foundation.
The business career of Earl C. Sams was closely related to that of James Cash Penney, who employed Mr. Sams as his “first man” in 1907, and soon made him a partner. Mr. Sams was named president of the J C Penney Company in 1917 when it was incorporated. He served in that capacity until 1947, when he was named chairman of the board, a post he held until his death in 1950.
Foundation funds established by Mr. Sams have been used for many projects in various religious, educational, social and charitable fields, but the largest single project has been the Gladys Porter Zoo.
Earl C. Sams had two daughters, Gladys and Camille. Both were very active in charitable work and they and their families were charged with the responsibility to wisely administer the Foundation funds established by Mr. Sams.
During the 1960s, Gladys Porter became increasingly interested in the plight of the world’s wildlife when she and her husband, Dean, traveled extensively in Africa and other foreign countries. The idea of a zoo for the Rio Grande Valley developed at this time, and the members of the Sams Foundation decided that this would be their next major project. Mrs. Porter was closely involved with the planning, construction and stocking of the Zoo.
The Gladys Porter Zoo was innovative for its time and continues to be a world-class facility. In fact, the architectural concept of the naturalistic exhibits won the 1979 Texas Building Branch of Associated General Contractors Outstanding Construction Award. The Gladys Porter Zoo has continued growing and improving over the years – adding new exhibits, animals and amenities along the way.
In January of 1972, the first issue of Zoo News, the Zoo’s official newsletter, was published just months after the Zoo opened. Initially, Zoo News was published on a bi-monthly basis. Today it is a quarterly publication. Zoo News is designed to keep Gladys Porter Zoo members and other zoos across the nation up to date on the animals, the people who care for them, what goes on behind the scenes, as well as upcoming special events here. It includes a special activity page designed just for children.
In April of 1973, the Zoo proudly opened the doors to its first addition – the Herpetarium. The Herpetarium is dedicated to preserving those species of reptiles and amphibians that are rapidly diminishing in the wild.
The very next month, the first Zoo Ball was held to help raise funds to build a free-flight aviary. The ball raised over $3,500. Special Zoo Ball guests were actor Jimmy Stewart and his wife Gloria. With the success of the first fundraiser, a “Safari Party” was soon scheduled for a few months later in September to raise more funds for the aviary. It too proved to be a big hit and was successful in raising additional funds.
The success of these first fundraisers led to the annual Zoofari fund raising event that is held the first Friday and Saturday of every October. Each Zoofari is dedicated to raising funds for special Zoo projects. And like those first fundraisers, each Zoofari is usually larger and more successful than the one before. Special guests in attendance include such famous animal lovers as Betty White, Amanda Blake and Marlin Perkins.
Inspired by the nation’s Energy Crisis, the Adopt-an-Animal program initiated in 1974. People were encouraged to “adopt an animal and pay its grocery bill for a year.” Today this program remains very popular with the public. School groups, families and individuals from all over the country adopt their favorite Gladys Porter Zoo animals each year. Adoptive parents come from as far away as Colorado, Washington, D.C., Illinois, and even Honduras.
The year 1978 was a significant one for the Gladys Porter Zoo. The first Summer Study programs were launched on a “trial” basis. Classes were offered for students from 1st through 12th grades. Only four sessions were taught that summer to a couple dozen children. Today, educational sessions have increased over 560 percent and are held in the spring, summer and fall. That same year, Zoofari raised enough money to bring the popular chimpanzees to the Zoo and American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums granted the Zoo its accreditation, the Zoo’s highest honor to date.
In 1980, the Zoo suffered a great loss when its founder, Gladys Porter, died. Mrs. Porter was President of the Board of Directors for 11 years and was personally involved in the day-to-day operations of the Zoo. It was Gladys Porter’s concern for the world’s wildlife and her intense love for living creatures that made the Gladys Porter Zoo a reality. The Gladys Porter Zoo remains a monument to the courage, determination and spirit of this very special lady. She proved that indeed, one person could make a difference.
Throughout the next few years, several more additions and improvements were made to the Zoo. The orangutan island was enlarged, the Aquatic Wing was added to the Herpetarium, the administrative offices were enlarged, and the concession stands were remodeled and added. A gift shop was built along with new offices for the Education Department, a small cathouse was built new Small World, and renovations were made to Small World, the chimp island and the bear grottos. Almost all of these renovations were made possible from funds raised by annual Zoofari fundraisers.
Over the years, the Earl C. Sams and the Lightner Sams Foundation have provided a major portion of the funds required to operate the Zoo. However, in 1986, due to changing financial conditions, the Board of the Valley Zoological Society voted to establish a permanent endowment fund to help strengthen the financial status of the Zoo. The Sams Foundation made their commitments through the establishment of challenge grants totaling $3 million. The Earl C. Sams Foundation committed to match dollar-for-dollar up to $2 million. The Lightner Sam’s Foundation committed to match an additional $1 million on the same dollar-for-dollar basis to the Endowment. Since the endowment fund’s formation, over $10 million has successfully been raised from businesses, corporations, foundations and concerned individuals. Income from the permanent endowment fund has ensured that sufficient funds are available each year to maintain and improve the quality of the Zoo’s operations.
In 1988, the Zoo’s largest addition was opened to the public. The Australian exhibit officially opened in February. The exhibit’s opening generated the largest number of visitors since the Zoo’s grand opening in 1971. The building was designed to not only provide a unique viewing experience with several open-air displays, but also to provide Zoo visitors with a little extra warmth in the winter and a nice cool spot in the summer.
Construction was again underway in 1989 with the expansion of the Education Department and the addition of a free-flight aviary, known as Zack’s Aerie. Through donations from the Meadows Foundation, the Education building added offices, two large classrooms, a library, a computer room, a graphics room and additional storage space. Zack’s Aerie, made possible from private donations, features bald and golden eagles with cascading waterfalls and rock cliffs.
During the 1990s, the Zoo’s animal departments focused their efforts on building their captive breeding strategies for rare and threatened species. The critically endangered Philippine crocodiles at the Zoo produced young year after year, and some of these were returned to the Philippines. Double-wattled cassowaries were produced, and several second-generation Western lowland gorillas were born. The Zoo received Komodo dragons and Jamaican iguanas – a species of iguana once thought to be extinct in the wild. Cooperative breeding projects with other zoos strengthened both the genetic makeup of the captive population of the species in the Zoo’s care, and made the Gladys Porter Zoo’s contribution to conservation more valuable.
In 2006, the Gladys Porter Zoo celebrated its 35th anniversary. It also launched its ReNEW the Zoo Endowment campaign, deigned to raise an additional 4.25 million to grow the endowment and complete some capital projects. At the end of 2006, long-time Director, Don D. Farst retired and Dr. Patrick M. Burchfield assumed the position of Director.
Through the 1990s and into the new millennium, the Zoo also built upon its community contributions with an emphasis on environmental education and preserving natural resources within south Texas. In addition to the successful renovation of several Zoo exhibits, the Zoo involved the community and successfully converted an abandoned railroad easement behind the Zoo into the South Texas Botanical Exhibit and Park. Within that park is a unique playground facility themed to South Texas, a native butterfly garden and exhibit, and lush native landscaping. It is behind this enriching, enchanted area that the Zoo developed the new South Texas Discovery Education Center in which it conducts its ongoing education programs.
In 2014, the Gladys Porter Zoo shattered all previous attendance records with over half-a-million guests visiting the Zoo. Although, a few things have changed over the years, many things still remain the same. The Gladys Porter Zoo is a visitor-oriented zoological and botanical park, dedicated to the preservation of nature through education, conservation and research. The mission is alive and apparent in the day-to-day operations of the Zoo and it is with this focus in mind that the Gladys Porter Zoo continues its plans for the future.