One common memory that residents can recall is the change in size of the Houston Zoo – the zoo has vastly grown from that first bison and continues to develop new changes and exhibits such as such as the Gorillas of the African Forest (opening Memorial Day weekend). Born and raised in Houston, 72-year-old Lynn Gillespie grew up not too far from the zoo and her childhood love for the zoo continues to this day.
“Our zoo is spectacular,” Gillespie said, who is the administrator for independent & assisted living at St. Dominic Village. “I take my kids to the zoo all the time. In fact the last time I went was Zoo Lights in 2013 with my daughter, and it was fabulous.”
Gillespie said when she was a child there was not an aquarium or a bird house, but that all changed when our third and longest tenured director John Werler joined the Houston Zoo in the late ‘50s. During Werler’s time the zoo added a small mammal house (later expanded to become Natural Encounters), a tropical bird house, Children’s Zoo, rhino exhibit, large cat exhibits, vet clinic, and aquarium. The Brown Education Center was dedicated in 1988, a gift from the former Zoological Society of Houston.
“During my time, I want to say the most significant things happening at the zoo were the opening of the bird house and the bear exhibits,” Gillespie said. “Just things opening at the zoo is what made a splash on the papers since it was so small at the time more so than now.”
In December 2010 the zoo opened the first phase of the African Forest immersion habitat. This six-acre, $40 million project includes chimpanzees, white rhinos, giraffe, and kudu antelope as well as a large African-themed restaurant, gift shop and trading post.
“What I remembered most as a child were the monkeys,” Gillespie said. “As a child I think I remember there only being one or two different species of monkeys. I think the zoo has done such a great job on the educating the public of what area and what region of the country each animal comes from.”
In 2000 the zoo opened the $6.5 million John P. McGovern Children’s Zoo and continued to improve with the addition of several other species such as the okapi and spectacled bear.
“I remember when the zoo brought in the petting zoo, and that must’ve come when my children were little because we used to have birthday parties out there,” Gillespie said. “That was the most significant thing to my children, but I do remember spending a lot of time at the seal pool and looking at elephants and hippos with them too. It was just always a lot of fun going to the zoo.”
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