Celebrating 30 Years of Cameron Park Zoo

By Susan Bean Aycock

The Little Zoo that Could

Pictured: Photos by Breanne Johnson, breannejohnsonphotography.com, Brittany Ross and courtesy of Cameron Park Zoo

When a few zoo loyalists proposed shutting down the Central Texas Zoological Park near the airport and building a brand-new zoo in Cameron Park with a natural habitat focus, they didn’t realize they were as ambitious as that proverbial little engine. It took a lot of I think I can’s and cooperation between city and county officials, Cameron Park Zoological Society board members, Junior League members, local donors and McLennan County voters to pull it off. On July 18, Cameron Park Zoo turns 30 but the zoo will be celebrating its birthday on June 8 with a huge bash.

The story about Cameron Park Zoo is a story of creative innovation, relentless pursuit of excellence and good old-fashioned determination to develop a zoological park that will educate future generations about the critical necessity of wildlife conservation, research and study. Not to mention education of the community on what a true collaboration looks like and what can be accomplished when like minds get together.

Waco’s zoo is world class, recognized for its expertise in orangutans and its leadership in conservation. With the construction of a veterinary building, an education building and a new South African penguin exhibit — all scheduled to open June 2024 — Cameron Park Zoo is still chugging up that hill.

Wacoan writer Susan Bean Aycock sat down with Cameron Park Zoological and Botanical Society Board President Nancy Lacy, who holds the position for the third time in the three decades of the zoo’s history. They talked about conserving wildlife, educating the community and forming collaborations that leave a legacy for generations to come.

WACOAN: Your involvement with the Cameron Park Zoo spans three decades, as long as it’s been in its present location. How did you get started working with the zoo?

Lacy: That’s an interesting story. I actually started with the Cen-Tex Zoo at the airport. It was a sad zoo; you felt sorry for the animals and the staff working there. It was an exciting time, though. The board was determined to move the zoo to Cameron Park and build a natural habitat zoo from the ground up. We didn’t have a lot of support in the beginning — it was a big dream created by a few zoo loyalists.

I was a student at MCC, and we had an English assignment to write a contrast paper that we could defend. I wasn’t a particularly good student or writer, but I knew I could defend moving the zoo from the airport location to Cameron Park. So I wrote a paper on the pros and cons of moving the zoo, and Rosalis Estes — who was on the [society] board and a strong advocate for the zoo — contacted me and said they’d love for me to come on the board. I was 24. I had just become a provisional member of the Junior League, and I became the liaison between the Junior League and the zoo.

I grew up at the zoo. I took about eight years off when I turned 50, but now I’m back again.

WACOAN: What makes the zoo so close to your heart?

Lacy: I’m from Waco and have always felt that for the city to grow, we needed to have an anchor. I knew the zoo could be that anchor, not only for tourism, but also for education. The children of our community deserved to have a family-oriented place to go where they could learn and explore right here in their hometown.

WACOAN: It was a major move to change to natural habitat exhibits when the zoo moved to Cameron Park. Can you tell me more about that?

Lacy: We knew the trend was going to natural habitat exhibits because it was better for both animals and patrons. Other zoos didn’t have the land or ability to move because they were established. Once the society and city made the commitment to move the zoo, we knew that we needed to use the beautiful terrain that Cameron Park offered, and that was going to give us the natural exhibits that we have today.

WACOAN: What do you think has made the collaboration between the city and zoo society over these 30 years so successful?

Lacy: The city and society both want our community to grow, and to do that we had to become partners who supported one another. The city has great structure and leadership through council, city management and staff, while the society brings innovation, passion and flexibility. Together we make a tremendous team. The whole process changed the way that politics were done in the city and county, and now we do a lot of collaborative work together. That collaboration is really the jewel in the crown of the whole process.

WACOAN: What’s so remarkable about this zoo?

Lacy: Our zoo is remarkable because of our staff. The society, city and county have worked together for the last 30 years to build a strong zoo family. We support one another, and it makes our zoo second to none. The county issues the bonds, the city runs the zoo, and the society supports those efforts — that means raising money for new exhibits, sending staff to conferences and participating in projects around the world. If it benefits the zoo or zoo staff, we’ll try and make it happen.

The society board is a very hands-on, strong community board. We come from various backgrounds, and that’s our strength.

Our donors are critical to the future of the zoo too. Without supporters like Jim and Nell Hawkins, Gloria and F.M. Young, the Schmidhauser family and many more we wouldn’t have the additional exhibits.

We knew in the beginning that we were never going to be able to compete with the really big zoos, like Dallas and San Diego, so we looked beyond pure finances and put a lot of effort into recruiting zoo and society staff. What we wanted to do was give them the tools they needed to be top in their field. We wanted to not only educate the community, but to educate our staff, so we asked them, ‘Where would you like to go?’ At first they put out very small goals, like go to AZA conferences. Pretty soon we were working in Mexico, South America, Borneo and Sumatra. We weren’t able to pay top salaries, but we could support the staff in excelling at what they loved.

Innovation is also what makes this zoo so special. One great example is the orangutan cardio care program we developed with Zoo Atlanta, where orangutans were given the opportunity to get treats when they volunteered for blood pressure monitoring and a blood draw. Atlanta had the first male in the program, but we had the first female. That’s why we went to China. They invited representatives from seven zoos in the U.S., based on their international reputations as world-leading orangutan experts, to present a workshop there on orangutans.

WACOAN: What have been some of the biggest challenges over these 30 years? The biggest triumphs?

Lacy: The biggest challenge was building out the zoo. It took longer than we had planned, but it was worth the wait.

The second was building the zoo structure within the city model. Municipalities are very different from private nonprofits and can have conflict at times. We have worked to create an environment of communication and respect with city administrations and city councils through the years that have made the city and private partnership work. Every time the administration and city council changed, we had to build new relationships and basically start all over. We now communicate quite frequently with each other. As you can see from the zoo, our partnership is very successful. I’m so glad we were able get our contract done so that we could move forward.

The biggest triumphs? Passing three major bonds with McLennan County voters as strong zoo supporters and having our staff recognized globally for their conservation efforts along with their expertise in the zoo field.

WACOAN: What are you proud of in terms of the whole zoo over the years? And personally?

Lacy: I’m proud that we’ve fulfilled our promise to the citizens of McLennan County to build out the Cameron Park Zoo and make it something they would be proud of. I’m so proud that we have a beautiful zoo to prove that we can produce results.

In the early ‘80s we put forth a dream that we tried to describe with a PowerPoint presentation, pictures and brochures. Because of the passion of the people speaking about that dream, everyone could see how much we wanted it to come to fruition. At that time the city and county weren’t working very well together, and not one single bond had passed in McLennan County for about 20 years. The last one had probably been the dam. We had a lot of late nights and meetings within meetings, tackling problems as they arose and working to make the dream a reality. It was a really ambitious goal, but we pulled it off.

The next greatest thing I’m so proud of is the zoo’s educational component, which was present from the very start and remains pretty unique in its scope. We collaborate with science teachers at all levels in the area. We’ve worked with Baylor University and the veterinary program at Texas A&M, and we’ve presented different aspects of animal psychology and behavior through all that. Education is where it’s at. We won’t survive without educating the next generation to take ownership of conservation and how humans relate with animals in the wild.

Personally, I’m proud that I was part of a larger group effort to make a significant change for the better in our community.

WACOAN: What are the newest animals? Any babies born recently?

Lacy: Kenai — the cutest black bear cub who came from Alaska — is the newest addition to the zoo. A female dik-dik [a small species of antelope] is the newest baby born at the zoo.

On May 10, we unveiled a new sculpture in the front plaza called ‘Road to Extinction,’ created by Solomon Bassoff. It was donated by Besty and Clifton Robinson in memory of Judge Ken Starr and in honor of Alice Starr, one of our board members. It represents everything we fight for at the zoo.

WACOAN: What’s coming up at the zoo?

Lacy: The education building and veterinary hospital. I’ve been waiting 20 years for those. The veterinary hospital is just a necessity.

I’m so glad that we’ll be able to host hundreds of thousands of children for educational activities — there was no space dedicated to them in the past.

And everyone is so excited about the South African penguins!

WACOAN: What hopes do you have for the zoo’s future?

Lacy: That the zoo continues to grow and educate all of our children about our world and the animals that live in it.

WACOAN: What do you hope will be your own legacy with the zoo?

Lacy: I’ve never thought about a personal legacy because I believe it takes a village to create and sustain things. The Cameron Park Zoo exists and thrives because of many wonderful people who love the zoo and who care about our community. It will live on through our children and grandchildren.

WACOAN: What birthday message to the zoo would you like to share with the community?

Lacy: Our zoo continues its tradition of educating the public on the importance of conservation for our planet and protecting these magnificent animals for years to come. The zoo continues to grow and prosper alongside this wonderful community in which we live. Education is the future of our zoo. And it’s all about the kids.

Cameron Park Zoo Timeline: Then to Now

1955-60: A group of outdoor and wildlife enthusiasts established the Central Texas Zoological Park to create recreational and educational opportunities. The 10-acre zoo opened on the grounds of the old Blackland Army Airfield, near the airport and Lake Waco, with about 30 animals.

1970s: Discussions began in the community to move the zoo.

1981: A master plan was established to build the new zoo in Cameron Park.

1988: A county-wide $9.6 million bond issue passed to construct the new zoo.

1993: The Cameron Park Zoo opened to the public on July 18, featuring natural habitats.

1997: The herpetarium (reptile house) and interactive play area opened, along with the African lion display the following year.

2000: McLennan County residents passed a $9.5 million bond for continued zoo expansion.

2005: The Brazos River Country exhibit opened to showcase indigenous plants and animals found on the banks of the Brazos.

2009: The Asian Forest exhibit opened with orangutans, Sumatran tigers and Komodo dragons.

2019: McLennan County voters passed a $14.5 million bond for zoo expansion.

2023: The Waco City Council and Cameron Park Zoological and Botanical Society board approved separate agreements on April 18 to maintain their working relationship for at least three years, through 2025. The city will continue to own and govern the property, while the zoo society will support operations through fundraising, capital expansion planning, volunteer recruitment and more. The contract includes a new $7.5 million capital improvement matching challenge grant. Both the city and society will provide input in the search for a new zoo director and society executive director. The search will focus first on the zoo director, which is a city position.