On a recent day at the San Antonio Zoo, there were 12 construction sites active on zoo grounds and seven different contractors doing work there.

Two years since the pandemic began to confine people to their homes, the place where San Antonio goes to see animals in captivity is building and improving the experience for both visitors and wildlife.

Founded in 1914, the San Antonio Zoo was one of the first in the country to feature cageless exhibits, using moats instead to corral wild animals starting in 1929. These days, it appears there’s little to contain the efforts of the zoo itself.

In June, the zoo opened an experiential theater featuring family-friendly movies, new dining and retail options and a remodeled F.C. Hixon Bird House, the structure built in 1966 to house vibrant tropical birds. 

Those improvements follow on the heels of a new 500-space parking garage, opened a year ago, and Neotropica, a catwalk system designed for the zoo’s jaguars that opened last fall.  

More dirt is being turned for other projects the zoo has in the works, including a redesigned entrance, a reimagined playscape for the zoo’s youngest visitors, opening later this year, and soon, a gorilla exhibit, returning the great apes to the zoo after a 31-year absence.  

All that’s new at the zoo this summer is the result of timely planning, community support and innovative programming, said Tim Morrow, president and CEO of the San Antonio Zoo. 

“We came through COVID strong and intact, which was good, and then we came out strong in 2021 and really have been growing and improving at a really rapid pace since then,” he said.

Morrow took over the top post at the nonprofit zoo in 2015 after starting his career at local for-profit theme parks — first Six Flags Fiesta Texas and later SeaWorld San Antonio, where he oversaw the opening of the Aquatica water park.

He remembers being at an Association of Zoos and Aquariums director’s meeting in early 2020 when talk of coronavirus centered around the need to control animal poaching and wet markets; the spread of COVID-19 had barely begun.

Still, the prospect of a raging pandemic was “terrifying” for all zoo leadership and what it would mean for the animals and the zoo’s bottom line, he said.

Creative revenue generators

On March 14, the San Antonio Zoo was forced by the governor’s orders to shut the gates to visitors. “At first, we thought we would maybe be closed for weeks or days and it went on and on and on,” Morrow said.

That period was difficult for zoos across the country, said David Walsh, founder and CEO of Zoo Advisors, a consultant group and member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. Revenue disappeared, but expenses remained.

“Unlike other museums or cultural attractions that could close [their] doors and lay off the staff, the zoos had to keep their staff on because they had live animals to care for,” he said.

A Crested coua is one of many birds at the newly updated F.C. Hixon Birdhouse at the San Antonio Zoo.
A crested coua is one of many birds at the newly updated F.C. Hixon Birdhouse at the San Antonio Zoo. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

For the San Antonio Zoo, it was simple luck that, just weeks before, officials had laid the foundation for what drove a fast turnaround.

“We were about to launch a capital campaign,” Morrow said, with the goal to communicate that the zoo is a nonprofit organization. “It costs half a million dollars a week to operate the zoo and take care of the animals. I think a lot of that was eye-opening for the community.”

They launched the campaign, then got creative with operations. Concerned the supply chain could be interrupted, the zoo began stockpiling medicines for the animals and even goods like toilet paper.

Early on, the zoo also opened its first drive-thru experience, allowing visitors to reenter the park by car. That project permitted the zoo to rehire hundreds of previously furloughed staff and generate $2 million in ticket sales. 

“We saw a lot of zoos and theme parks take this [idea] around the world once we set that model for everybody, so that was a win for us,” Morrow said. 

Clearing inventory in its shuttered gift shops, the zoo offered pre-assembled Easter baskets for sale in a promotion that brought in another $55,000 in gross proceeds. 

In that time, donations to the zoo’s emergency fund also increased by over $3 million. 

“Coming out of 2020 with a solid foundation also showed our donors that this is a place that I can donate my money and I know it’s going to be well taken care of and they’re going to do good things and be around for another 100 years,” Morrow said.

As a result, the zoo was able to fully reimburse through bonuses the employees who lost wages due to reduced work hours and percentage pay cuts, Morrow said.

A child looks out from a vehicle during a Drive-Thru Zoo Experience and points to animals at the San Antonio Zoo in May 2020. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Luring visitors outdoors

For months during 2020, the zoo was generally quieter than normal without the usual parade of visitors. And inside the pens and behind the moats, the animals also seemed to notice something was different. 

While the lions continued to do what they naturally do in the wild — sleep away the day — the gibbons desperately sought the attention of any passerby, Morrow said.

“Some species became happier when there were people back, besides just us.”

By fall 2020, with the doors fully opened again, the zoo became a destination of choice. Zoo visitor counts in fall 2020 and spring 2021 went up, Morrow said. 

“People really came out to zoos because it’s outdoors — they feel safe,” he said. “And I think people want to really just be connected back to nature. If there are any positives that have come out of the pandemic, [that’s one].”

But because today’s consumers have high expectations, zoos have to continually refresh their offerings, said Walsh, a consultant who has worked in zoos for 20 years.

“It’s like in a theme park where they’re always building a new roller coaster — you want to have something new to see and do,” Walsh said. “But I think probably more importantly, it’s to build exhibits that kind of represent the latest thinking in animal care and welfare.”

New attractions

In October 2021, the zoo opened Neotropica, an exhibit that mimics a South American fishing village and features a catwalk system through the Amazonian aviary for the zoo’s jaguars. Fully funded by donors, the $2 million exhibit welcomed a 2-year-old female jaguar named Frida in April 2022. 

Shortly after Neotropica opened, improvements to the zoo’s entrance began in the first phase of a master plan to improve the zoo’s safety, access and compliance with the American With Disabilities Act. The new entrance also will feature the work of local artists.

The project is being funded through the 2022 city bond and charitable donations. When complete, the zoo promises the entry will offer “immersive, interactive experiences worth of a San Antonio celebration.” 

The zoo admitted its 1 millionth visitor of 2021 on Dec. 22. That was without any school groups visiting during the year. Spending among visitors was also up last year, producing revenue that allowed the zoo to complete some internal projects, Morrow said.

In June, the Project Selva 4D Theater was introduced giving zoo visitors the experience of watching a movie with special effects like bubbles, snow, scents, lighting, water mists, seat vibrations and wind. There are also new retail and culinary offerings, including vegetarian options in zoo restaurants. 

The Project Selva 4D Theater at the San Antonio Zoo.
The Project Selva 4D Theater at the San Antonio Zoo. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Opening in fall 2022, the $2.2 million Kronkosky’s Tiny Tot Nature Spot, funded in part by the Kronkosky Foundation, is being redesigned to offer animal-oriented indoor and outdoor play space for toddlers. 

Plans are also underway to transform a 2-acre section of the zoo into one of the largest gorilla habitats in the U.S. The exhibit is set to open in 2024, Morrow said. 

A review of the zoo’s master plan, created in 2015, is ongoing as the zoo works to better prepare for the unexpected, he said. 

The pandemic proved the zoo needs more outdoor space to accommodate vehicles driving through the park. Extreme weather events — such as the extended freezing temperatures in winter 2021 — showed the zoo needed more indoor space to house animals.

This year, groups of school children also returned to the zoo, Morrow said. “Which makes us very happy because the just the sounds and the energy of the kids here is really fulfilling.”

This story has been updated to clarify the year the San Antonio Zoo launched and the year it began using cageless exhibits.

Shari Biediger has been covering business and development for the San Antonio Report since 2017. A graduate of St. Mary’s University, she has worked in the corporate and nonprofit worlds in San Antonio...