The Gladys Porter Zoo
opened to the public on September 3, 1971. The facility
was completely planned, built, stocked, equipped and
then given to the City of Brownsville by the Earl
C. Sams Foundation.
The business career of Earl C. Sams was
closely related to that of James Cash Penney, who
employed Mr. Sams as his "first man" in
1907, and soon made him a partner. Mr. Sams was named
president of the J C Penney Company in 1917 when it
was incorporated. He served in that capacity until
1947, when he was named chairman of the board, a post
he held until his death in 1950.
Foundation funds established by Mr. Sams
have been used for many projects in various religious,
educational, social and charitable fields, but the
largest single project has been the Gladys Porter
Earl C. Sams had two daughters, Gladys
and Camille. Both were very active in charitable work
and they and their families were charged with the
responsibility to wisely administer the Foundation
funds established by Mr. Sams.
During the 1960s, Gladys Porter became
increasingly interested in the plight of the world's
wildlife when she and her husband, Dean, traveled
extensively in Africa and other foreign countries.
The idea of a zoo for the Rio Grande Valley developed
at this time, and the members of the Sams Foundation
decided that this would be their next major project.
Mrs. Porter was closely involved with the planning,
construction and stocking of the Zoo.
The Gladys Porter Zoo was innovative
for its time and continues to be a world-class facility.
In fact, the architectural concept of the naturalistic
exhibits won the 1979 Texas Building Branch of Associated
General Contractors Outstanding Construction Award.
The Gladys Porter Zoo has continued growing and improving
over the years - adding new exhibits, animals and
amenities along the way.
In January of 1972, the first issue of
Zoo News, the Zoo's official newsletter, was published
just months after the Zoo opened. Initially, Zoo News
was published on a bi-monthly basis. Today it is a
quarterly publication. Zoo News is designed to keep
Gladys Porter Zoo members and other zoos across the
nation up to date on the animals, the people who care
for them, what goes on behind the scenes, as well
as upcoming special events here. It includes a special
activity page designed just for children.
In April of 1973, the Zoo proudly opened
the doors to its first addition - the Herpetarium.
The Herpetarium is dedicated to preserving those species
of reptiles and amphibians that are rapidly diminishing
in the wild.
The very next month, the first Zoo Ball
was held to help raise funds to build a free-flight
aviary. The ball raised over $3,500. Special Zoo Ball
guests were actor Jimmy Stewart and his wife Gloria.
With the success of the first fundraiser, a "Safari
Party" was soon scheduled for a few months later
in September to raise more funds for the aviary. It
too proved to be a big hit and was successful in raising
The success of these first fundraisers
led to the annual Zoofari fund raising event that
is held the first Friday and Saturday of every October.
Each Zoofari is dedicated to raising funds for special
Zoo projects. And like those first fundraisers, each
Zoofari is usually larger and more successful than
the one before. Special guests in attendance include
such famous animal lovers as Betty White, Amanda Blake
and Marlin Perkins.
In 1974, Don D. Farst, D.V.M. was promoted
to Director of the Gladys Porter Zoo. Dr. Farst came
to the Gladys Porter Zoo in 1970 from the Columbus
Zoological Gardens in Columbus, Ohio.
Inspired by the nation's Energy Crisis,
the Adopt-an-Animal program initiated in 1974. People
were encouraged to "adopt an animal and pay its
grocery bill for a year." Today this program
remains very popular with the public. School groups,
families and individuals from all over the country
adopt their favorite Gladys Porter Zoo animals each
year. Adoptive parents come from as far away as Colorado,
Washington, D.C., Illinois, and even Honduras.
The year 1978 was a significant one for
the Gladys Porter Zoo. The first Summer Study programs
were launched on a "trial" basis. Classes
were offered for students from 1st through 12th grades.
Only four sessions were taught that summer to a couple
dozen children. Today, educational sessions have increased
over 560 percent and are held in the spring, summer
and fall. That same year, Zoofari raised enough money
to bring the popular chimpanzees to the Zoo and American
Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums granted
the Zoo its accreditation, the Zoo's highest honor
In 1980, the Zoo suffered a great loss
when its founder, Gladys Porter, died. Mrs. Porter
was President of the Board of Directors for 11 years
and was personally involved in the day-to-day operations
of the Zoo. It was Gladys Porter's concern for the
world's wildlife and her intense love for living creatures
that made the Gladys Porter Zoo a reality. The Gladys
Porter Zoo remains a monument to the courage, determination
and spirit of this very special lady. She proved that
indeed, one person could make a difference.
Throughout the next few years, several
more additions and improvements were made to the Zoo.
The orangutan island was enlarged, the Aquatic Wing
was added to the Herpetarium, the administrative offices
were enlarged, and the concession stands were remodeled
and added. A gift shop was built along with new offices
for the Education Department, a small cathouse was
built new Small World, and renovations were made to
Small World, the chimp island and the bear grottos.
Almost all of these renovations were made possible
from funds raised by annual Zoofari fundraisers.
Over the years, the Earl C. Sams and
the Lightner Sams Foundation have provided a major
portion of the funds required to operate the Zoo.
However, in 1986, due to changing financial conditions,
the Board of the Valley Zoological Society voted to
establish a permanent endowment fund to help strengthen
the financial status of the Zoo. The Sams Foundation
made their commitments through the establishment of
challenge grants totaling $3 million. The Earl C.
Sams Foundation committed to match dollar-for-dollar
up to $2 million. The Lightner Sam's Foundation committed
to match an additional $1 million on the same dollar-for-dollar
basis to the Endowment. Since the endowment fund's
formation, over $10 million has successfully been
raised from businesses, corporations, foundations
and concerned individuals. Income from the permanent
endowment fund has ensured that sufficient funds are
available each year to maintain and improve the quality
of the Zoo's operations.
In 1988, the Zoo's largest addition was
opened to the public. The Australian exhibit officially
opened in February. The exhibit's opening generated
the largest number of visitors since the Zoo's grand
opening in 1971. The building was designed to not
only provide a unique viewing experience with several
open-air displays, but also to provide Zoo visitors
with a little extra warmth in the winter and a nice
cool spot in the summer.
Construction was again underway in 1989
with the expansion of the Education Department and
the addition of a free-flight aviary, known as Zack's
Aerie. Through donations from the Meadows Foundation,
the Education building added offices, two large classrooms,
a library, a computer room, a graphics room and additional
storage space. Zack's Aerie, made possible from private
donations, features bald and golden eagles with cascading
waterfalls and rock cliffs.
In 2006, the Gladys Porter Zoo
celebrated its 35th anniversary. It also launched its ReNEW the Zoo Endowment campaign, deigned to raise an additional 4.25 million to grow the endowment and complete some capital projects. At the end of 2006, long-time Director, Don D. Farst retired and Dr. Patrick M. Burchfield assumed the position of Director.
A few things have
changed over the years, but many things still remain
the same. The Gladys Porter Zoo is still dedicated
to the preservation of nature through education, conservation
and research. These traditions are alive and apparent
in the day-to-day operations of the Zoo and it is with these basic missions in mind that the Gladys Porter Zoo continues plans for the future.