What began as a small collection of native animals in the 1950s grew into the Cameron Park Zoo Wacoans know today. Cameron Park Zoo rests on fifty-two acres of land near the Brazos River, and is a popular stop for local families, school groups, and travelers making their way to Austin or Dallas on Interstate 35.
Originally organized by local wildlife enthusiasts, the collection of animals came together for the purpose of education and with the goal to showcase real, live animals to the public of Central Texas. In 1955, wildlife volunteers displayed mammals and reptiles at the Heart O’ Texas Fair. The small exhibit attracted donations from the visitors who supported the formation of a zoo. After the fair, the animals moved to a pet shop display in Waco on Twenty-Fifth Street. In 1956, the animals moved again to a fire station, and then in 1960 the animals moved to a permanent ten-acre site by Lake Waco and the Madison Cooper Municipal Airport known as the Central Texas Zoological Park.
During its early years, the park was a large collection of animals held in various enclosures with a food preparation area made of rock walls and a dirt floor. At its location by Lake Waco, staff members of the Central Texas Zoological Park worked hard to make the zoo operate professionally. Civic groups of volunteers raised money to build a nursery clinic for the animals and a kitchen to prepare food. Throughout the 1970s, zoo docents organized educational programs for McLennan County residents and the zoo built an entryway facility with a gift shop and ticket office. With all these moves forward, however, the zoo’s infrastructure and income could not support the dream of a sophisticated and scientific organization or the growth and nutrition of the animals. The zoo needed to move and rebuild. In order to make the dream a reality, community members interested in wildlife conservation joined the board of directors and pushed towards legitimacy and a more sophisticated institution.
In the late 1970s, the zoo became an entity of the city of Waco, and the discussion of moving locations began. Leaders of the zoo recognized Cameron Park as the perfect location because of the abundance of flora and fauna, ponds, and other natural elements that many city zoos have to build. Interest in the project gained momentum throughout Waco, and members of local civic organizations became heavily involved with raising money to move the zoo. In November 1983, a county bond election was held and a vote passed in support of the zoo’s move to Cameron Park for 9.9 million dollars. Along with the move, the bond included funds for educational programs and better animal care according to the standards of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. The new zoo, known as Cameron Park Zoo, opened its doors on July 18, 1993, on fifty-two acres of lush land with over forty animals in natural habitats.
Since its opening in 1993, Cameron Park Zoo built new attractions such as a reptile house, Lemur Island, an African lion exhibit, and more. In 2005, the Brazos River Country exhibit opened to showcase indigenous plants and animals found on the banks of the Brazos River. In 2009, the Asian Forest exhibit opened with orangutans, Sumatran tigers, and Komodo dragons. Cameron Park Zoo is a member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums, and the staff provide care, training, and nutrition to animals. The Cameron Park Zoo not only is a recreational place to see animals, but is an educational resource for students from early childhood to graduate school education. The zoo holds seminars for international research and plays a large part in wildlife conservation by caring for endangered species and returning animals to the wild.
Today, Cameron Park Zoo is home to over 1,700 animals that are given care from the staff and veterinarians. The zoo continues to host opportunities to learn about the wildlife in the forms of school field trips, educational events, and fundraising events, and it is one of the most visited recreational spots in Waco.