This artistic rendering shows the San Antonio Zoo's plans for a "World of Birds" exhibit.
This artistic rendering shows the San Antonio Zoo's plans for a "World of Birds" exhibit. Credit: Courtesy / San Antonio Zoo

San Antonio Zoo officials are working toward a bold plan to expand the 104-year-old zoo beyond its quarry walls, build more naturalistic habitats, and create a safari-like experience for visitors and the animals.

The $200 million master plan will serve as a roadmap for the zoo’s next 20 years and will begin later this year following completion of the new $1 million habitat for rhinos, which broke ground in August.

New habitats, exhibits, and events in recent years have drawn more visitors than ever to the zoo. Last year, more than 1.1 million people visited the zoo, generating an economic impact of $108.6 million to the city – about half of that came from out-of-town visitor spending. A 2017 TripAdvisor list of the Top 10 most popular new experiences for global travelers included the San Antonio Zoo.

The goal of the master plan may be to keep visitors coming, but it’s also to make the zoo a “must see” on the long list of tourist attractions in the city, San Antonio Zoo CEO Tim Morrow said.

“One of the beautiful things about being in San Antonio is all the tourists coming here, but the problem is all the competition,” he said.

Morrow cited the example of the zoo in Omaha, Nebraska, which he said draws 2 million visitors a year in a city of 500,000 people and with fewer tourist attractions than San Antonio. But visitors to San Antonio, and locals alike, can choose from any number of downtown attractions, festivals and events, world-class museums, and two theme parks.

“We really have to stand out to hold people for a day or two,” he said. “If they do, ultimately that’s beneficial for San Antonio because people will stay here and spend more money in our city. We’re a top-tier zoo, no doubt, but want to be on the same level as San Diego.”

The 100-acre San Diego Zoo is home to 3,700 rare and endangered animals representing approximately 660 species and subspecies, and offers visitors eight distinct safari experiences at its Safari Park, located 35 miles northeast of the zoo.

This rendering shows the future of the jaguar exhibit at the San Antonio Zoo.
This artistic rendering shows the future of the jaguar exhibit at the San Antonio Zoo. Credit: Courtesy / San Antonio Zoo

To pull even with San Diego, zoo leaders and consultants from PGAV Destinations of St. Louis have come up with a plan to make better use of the San Antonio Zoo’s 55 acres. Included in that are 22 acres of zoo property west of U.S. Highway 281 and south of Hildebrand Avenue, currently being used as a “back area” for greenhouses and conservation programs.

The proposed plan would help expand the size and scope of zoo offerings plus bring zoo access closer to the Will Smith Zoo School on Tuleta Drive so students can enter and exit the zoo directly from school grounds.

Plans also call for improving the east side of the zoo property that sits adjacent to Brackenridge Park and the San Antonio River and is blocked by solid fencing.

“But the most interesting piece of land is … on the northwest side of the zoo, on top of a quarry wall being used as a back area right now, where there’s a view of the entire zoo and a straight shot of the downtown skyline,” Morrow said. “We are really growing out of the quarry walls.”

The additional land will be used to develop the latest in zoo trends, a safari-style park with wide open spaces, herds of roaming animals, and breeding that sustains species. The overall goal is to reduce the number of menagerie-style animal pens in use at the zoo.

“In the past, zoos were judged by how many animals and the kinds of animals they had, but now they are judged by their conservation efforts, educational programs, and how naturalistic the habitats are,” Morrow said.

But because some of the older enclosures at the San Antonio Zoo were created by the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s, those historic hand-carved walls would need to be preserved and perhaps moved to the new development on the other side of the highway – “So we don’t feel like two zoos,” Morrow said.

This conceptual rendering shows "The Bush Trail" at the San Antonio Zoo.
This artistic rendering shows “The Bush Trail” at the San Antonio Zoo. Credit: Courtesy / San Antonio Zoo

In response to requests from visitors, new animals – including gorillas, orangutans, and polar bears – also might be arriving under the master plan. Last year, 27 new animals were born or introduced at the San Antonio Zoo, from psychedelic rock geckos to a giant anteater.

“I am really excited to be a part of this project,” zoo board member Sara Stumberg Walker said. “The master plan will allow us to expand into unused land around the zoo and help us create an experience unique to San Antonio. The zoo has always been a leader in conservation and education, and I am so excited to see what the next 100 years brings for these animals and for the people of San Antonio.”

But before large and appropriate habitats holding those animals can be built, major upgrades to plumbing – among other things – in the century-old zoo as well as basic infrastructure improvements will be required for the property west of U.S. Highway 281.

The location of the zoo itself – inside a rock quarry, cut through the middle by a major highway, and with traffic flow issues surrounding it – already makes operations and improvements difficult. But Morrow said the biggest challenge the zoo currently faces is raising the $200 million necessary to implement the master plan.

“We’re not a city with a big corporate base, so … it will take smaller bites and a lot more work,” he said. “But when we do something at the zoo, compared to other cities, we like to say ours is 10 million times more amazing because we had to work so hard for it.”

The silent phase of the fundraising work – meeting with major donors – already has begun, and when the funds reach a level not yet specified, the zoo will begin a more public campaign that stretches across the South Texas service area.

In 2017, operating expenses for the 501(c)3 nonprofit came to $26.5 million, with operations and facilities management accounting for much of the funds at $10.6 million and animal care next at $4.8 million. Admissions generated $9.9 million in revenue, memberships $2.1 million, and sales of food and beverage and ride tickets another $6.5 million. Donations and grants brought in $11.2 million.

Morrow said successful fundraising efforts by The Witte Museum, The DoSeum, the San Antonio Botanical Garden, and others, have inspired confidence in the zoo’s ability to raise the money needed.

“We’ve been working really hard to improve the guest experience, to improve the experience for our animals by updating well over 100 habitats in the last three years, to really show San Antonio and Texas where we’re going as a zoo, and so we’re really starting to see donors engage with us,” he said.

“It will really be an effort of re-engaging donors who help shape the city and all these other incredible institutions around San Antonio and to say it’s the zoo’s turn. Let’s get this zoo back to world-class status and something that draws visitors to San Antonio.”

Major giving to the zoo already is up. Late last year, Valero contributed $3 million to the zoo to support educational programming for underprivileged children, and a private donor gave $4 million for the Zoo School.

“The timing is really perfect,” said zoo donor and board member Susan Naylor. The Will Smith Zoo School is named for her late son. “Most people in San Antonio grew up coming to the zoo and have made memories here for generations. I’ve traveled around the country and the world to see other zoos, and I can tell you that what we are going to create will put us close to or at the top of the must-see zoos worldwide.”

Morrow said the zoo also plans to approach the City of San Antonio, Bexar County, and state leaders to support the effort by budgeting for various zoo projects. The zoo currently receives $306,000 a year from hotel occupancy tax revenues for use in marketing and advertising. In June, the City approved a new $10.8 million parking garage for the San Antonio Zoo and Brackenridge Park that will be complete in 2019.

For comparison, the Houston Zoo, which Morrow said is supported by municipal funding worth $10 million annually, announced in April the start of a $150 million fundraising campaign for a new multi-species habitat. The City of Dallas contributes $14 million a year to its zoo.

“The more they put into the zoo, the more they get out … it’s a win-win for the city, it’s a win-win for the entire economy,” he said.

In the meantime, the new rhino habitat project is the kind of new habitat, exhibit, or event the zoo has been introducing annually – as theme parks often do to entice visitors. But even larger, multi-million-dollar projects are on the way.

“Moving forward we will be involved with conservation efforts and create habitats for species that we feel are expected at a high-caliber zoo that we may not currently have,” Morrow said. “I’ll let your imagination run with that one.”

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Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger is the development beat reporter for the San Antonio Report.