The Little Rock Zoo is Arkansas’s only public zoo. Since its beginning, the zoo has grown and become a major attraction in Little Rock (Pulaski County).
The zoo began in 1926, with only an abandoned timber wolf and a brown bear. Soon after, the Arkansas Democrat began a public campaign for the zoo and bought three buffalo with the funds it had raised. The public donated small animals, while others were donated through the help of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission. The city bought a lion, and several deer were donated. The zoo was then part of the Little Rock Parks and Recreation Department.
In 1928, the city hired a carnival, and the zoo received the proceeds of its shows. The money, about $4,000, was used to help buy animals from other zoos. At that time, the zoo had about three dozen animals, including two alligators. By 1930, the value of the animals and buildings in which they were housed was more than $50,000. In 1936, the value was $118,729. Attendance climbed from 158,437 annually in 1947 to 235,817 in 1953. During this period, between 1947 and 1953, two lions and two tigers were added.
Some animals have brought many visitors to the zoo. One such animal was Big Arkie, a thirteen-foot alligator found in Yellowstone Creek in 1952. After spending the night in a small pool, Big Arkie was transported to the zoo in a crate. An estimated 3,000 people came to see him on his first day, and he continued to draw crowds during his eighteen years there. At his death, he was believed to be the largest captive alligator in the western hemisphere.
Many citizens and organizations have also helped the zoo. The Civitan Club of Little Rock began association with the zoo in 1953. Through the Civitan Club, the zoo built a children’s area, which had a mule, a donkey, an otter pool, and three pigs. The club bought a miniature train for the zoo and, in 1998, gave $100,000 for the construction of an outdoor amphitheater.
The Little Rock Zoo Docents was organized in 1975, and the Little Rock Zoo Explorer Post was established in 1977. The members of these two groups support the zoo by caring for the animals.
In 1998, a pivotal point in the zoo’s history, the city lost its license from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to display animals when officials missed the renewal deadline by ten days. To regain the license, the zoo had to pass inspection, but it failed to do so and faced closure. In July, the American Zoo and Aquarium Association withdrew accreditation, but things improved when the zoo passed the third federal inspection. About two years later, it regained accreditation.
The zoo is now its own department under the city and is still expanding. Special events, such as “Boo at the Zoo” at Halloween, have proven very popular.
In April 2016, the zoo opened its Arkansas Heritage Farm exhibit in partnership with Heifer International. The interactive exhibit features sheep, chickens, turkeys, geese, pygmy goats, and miniature horses and donkeys.
For additional information:
Little Rock Zoo. http://www.littlerockzoo.com (accessed August 15, 2016).
Conor J. Hennelly