Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens

June 26, 2009 52 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

In January 1916 the city zoo in Springfield Park consisted of two deer, two wildcats, two coyotes, one black bear, five monkeys, five silver foxes, a whole lot of rabbits and some Guinea hens, cranes and squirrels. Since then, the Jacksonville Zoo has come a long way.


The Municipal Zoo opened in the Springfield neighborhood of Jacksonville, Florida on May 12, 1914. The first animal on exhibit was a red deer fawn.

On July 19, 1925, the Zoo moved to a 37.5-acre site on the Trout River off Heckscher Drive in North Jacksonville. Over the course of the next forty years, the Zoo continued to grow in area and in terms of animals on display.

Perhaps the most significant animal in the Zoo's history was a jaguar named "Zorro." Zorro was a male, wild-born black jaguar that arrived at the Zoo in August, 1967. At that time, black jaguars were very rare in captivity. During Zorro's 19 years at the Zoo (he died in September, 1986) he fathered numerous kittens that were sent to other zoos across North America. In the spring of 2003, the Jax Zoo investigated and could not find a current North American captive born black jaguar that was not a descendant of Zorro.

By the end of the 1960s, the Zoo was reputed to have the largest collection of exotic animals in the Southeast, but it had fallen on hard times and a great deal of money was needed to save the zoo. Community leaders, under the direction of Mayor Hans Tanzler, appointed a seven member committee to search for an alternative to closing the Zoo.

A major redevelopment of the Zoo began in 1992. Through a combination of public funds and private donations, over $20 million was raised to complete Phase One of the Zoo's Master Plan. Projects completed include a new front entry gate and parking lot, the Main Camp entrance, Birds of the Rift Valley Aviary, Great Apes, an expanded train ride, an elephant and breeding complex, RiverBranch Foundation Animal Medical Center, the PepsiCo Foundation Education Campus, and redevelopment of the 11-acre Plains of East Africa.

Front entrance of the zoo.

In December 2003, the zoo's name was officially changed from the Jacksonville Zoo to the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens. Over the next five years, several new exhibits and services, including the famed Range of the Jaguar, the Savanna Blooms botanical garden, and the Children's Play Park successfully opened to the public. In addition, the zoo has endeavored to become recognized as a botanical garden.

Children's Play Park at the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens.

Currently, the Zoo sits on 89 acres of land, over twice its original size on the Trout River location. The Zoo houses over 2,000 rare and exotic animals and over 1,500 unique plant species and participates in many preservation and breeding programs to ensure the survival of endangered and threatened species as well as local fauna and flora.

The Gardens at Trout River Plaza

The new garden space features a partially-walled botanical garden plaza that will serve as a gathering and event space and offers a beautiful view of the Trout River.  Central to the plaza is a celebratory fountain with a spill bowl topped by a basking anhinga bird sculpture. The fountain is surrounded by pebble mosaic paving that features a menagerie of animals of the Trout River.

Springing from lush garden beds, thirteen Grecian-style “living” columns topped with overflowing flowering urns giving the Gardens a classical look.  A planted trellis, lush and cool with colorful and fragrant vines, along with a number of large shade trees and themed lights all create a special area that can be enjoyed for private parties after hours. The Grand Opening was held September 2007.  

Savanna Blooms (opened in spring 2005)

The first Themed Pocket Garden in the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens Botanical Garden Concept Plan, Savanna Blooms, was completed in spring 2005. Nestled beneath the Giraffe Overlook, visitors will find acacia groves that flank two entrances into the one-half acre, “not so big garden”.  This unique garden, fashioned after a South African oasis, transitions from soft grasslands and fine textured acacia leaves at each entrance into a bold contemporary garden at its core.  Kopje outcrops erupt from the landscape, and a weep trickles down the face of the rocks.  The spring feeds a serene pool that showcases African water lilies and water edge plants.  Visitors rest beneath the curved trellis laden with fragrant flowering vines and view the garden’s splendor from an internal vantage point.  

Botanical Garden Concept Plan:  Setting a New Standard

For decades, Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens has given Jacksonville and Northeast Florida residents a place to love animals. Now our mission is to offer our community a public place to love plants, while setting a new standard for zoos in the process.  We are in the process of building a first-of-its-kind botanical garden inside our Zoo that, unlike other zoos, is separate from the adjuncts to animals.

Unlike most other growing and culturally-rich cities, Jacksonville cannot list a botanical garden as one of its cultural treasures.  Beyond filling an educational need, botanical gardens benefit their communities in many ways.  They become tourist attractions, benefit the green industry, serve as an employer and pump millions of construction dollars and salaries into the regional economy.

Over the past 400 years botanical gardens evolved from a menagerie of medicinal plants to entering the 21st century with a strong focus on the concept of environmental sustainability.  While some zoos have enhanced the natural habitat of their animal collection, none to our knowledge have committed to the idea of combining a zoo and botanical garden.  This combination will only serve to strengthen each institution’s ability to foster a clear vision of sustainable conservation of our natural resources.

With the help of a nationally-renowned botanical garden design firm, the Zoo developed three major garden zones in its Botanical Garden Concept Plan:

The Garden Path: Visitors will begin their garden journey at the Main Camp and will be greeted with a celebratory display of striking foliage and flowering plants.  They will be drawn toward the Garden Path by drifts of colorful bloom swirling through ribbons of contrasting foliage and textures in the distance.  Throughout the Zoo, the Garden Path will be a linear garden that links garden destinations.

Themed Pocket Gardens:  Distinct and unique garden jewels of horticultural display that immerse the visitor into strongly themed forecourts to the animal exhibits that follow.  Each garden is about one half acre in size.

The Primary Gardens: In Jacksonville, visitors to the Zoo have, over the years, recognized the unique relationship the Zoo shares with the Trout River.  The beautiful native water-edge plants and spectacular panoramic views over the River set this are aside as something quite special.  Recognizing this potential, we selected this area as the home for the Primary Gardens will cover approximately twelve acres.

Photo Tour

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Photos by Daniel Herbin