Nature & Nurture: Tending the Treasure of the Little Rock Zoo

Most Arkansans have a favorite Little Rock Zoo moment — a special field trip, an animal that captured their imagination or a ride on the Over the Jumps Carousel. With 2024 marking its 100th anniversary, the zoo will invite patrons to share their memories and snapshots as centennial celebrations kick off at the end of the year.

“We want to hear those kinds of stories … to reflect back to the community what the zoo has meant, in their voices,” shares Joy Matlock, the zoo’s head of ​​marketing and development.

As a native Arkansan, Dr. Jessica Scott has many fond Little Rock Zoo memories. From birthday parties as a kid to planning (and enjoying) Wild Wines as a longtime executive board member of the Arkansas Zoological Foundation (AZF), and now as a mother, her most poignant memory is more recent.

“The zoo was a life-saver during the pandemic,” she says. “It was a really meaningful experience. And we didn’t know at the time how needed it was because my daughter really missed her teachers. … I learned during COVID that the zoo is really a gathering place.”
Scott wears many hats. In addition to her work as associate director of the Donaghey Scholars Honors Program at UA Little Rock, she serves as chair of the zoo’s latest capital campaign. Starting this month, she and her committee will kick off fundraising to support the zoo’s implementation of its latest master plan. The initial goal is to raise $2-3 million, but the team’s mission goes beyond simply fundraising.

“I see this capital campaign as a really good way to engage the public much more broadly with the future of the zoo,” Scott says. “Our long-term goal is to elevate our zoo from a good zoo to a world class zoo.”

Credit: Jason Masters

Her team even has their own name for the plan: friend-raising.

“We’re making new friends and supporters for the zoo. I think sometimes when it comes to philanthropy, we just don’t always think about somewhere like the zoo. So part of our job is to put that on everyone’s radar and let them know just how amazing it could be.”

The first phase of updates, slated for completion over the next three years, will greet visitors right when they arrive.

“I think people are going to be blown away,” Matlock says.

The entrance will be “completely transformed,” while compelling new and expanded animal exhibits will accompany the refreshed welcome area.

“My daughter would be so mad at me if I didn’t mention the capybaras. They are such fun animals,” Scott says, noting the internet-beloved rodents will share an exhibit with energetic squirrel monkeys.

“We think the two animals are going to have some really fun interactions for guests. … It will be an exciting way to start a visit.”

Additional updates to the 33-acre campus include revamping the amphitheater for more accessible learning experiences, an updated lemur exhibit, a new anteater exhibit and a new interactive tortoise habitat where patrons can feed the animals. If that seems like a major undertaking, that’s because it is.

“This project is the largest investment we’ve ever made at the zoo,” Little Rock Zoo Director Susan Alturi says.

As the zoo is set to take this substantial step forward, a glimpse at its history reveals several meaningful milestones, starting with the mystery of its founding date.

“We originally thought our birthday was 1926, but we recently found some documentation that places our birthdate much earlier in 1924,” Alturi says. “So we’re going to be launching the celebration of our centennial at the end of this year and celebrating the majority of it next year and into 2026. There’s no reason we can’t celebrate for longer than a year.”

No matter the exact date, the Little Rock Zoo opened with only two animals: an abandoned timber wolf and a former circus bear. From that humble beginning, the zoo grew steadily. In the late 1950s it was recognized as the only official Arkansas zoo, and in the mid-’80s, it became an accredited member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), a rigorous process that zoos must repeat every five years.

“That elevated the zoo from a roadside sideshow to a recognized scientific institution that contributes to the learning of species from all over the world. That’s pretty significant,” Matlock says.

“It’s that seal of approval that the zoo is doing the very best it can in terms of animal care and conservation,” Alturi says.

And when that accreditation was later threatened in the ‘90s, the city came together to resoundingly support the zoo and its AZA member status.

With the momentum of strong public support, the zoo made another major move with the creation of the Arkansas Zoological Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to growing and developing the zoo through updates and new exhibits. By 2011, the AZF facilitated the addition of the Laura P. Nichols Penguin Pointe exhibit.

“It took a lot of effort on behalf of the people involved, the zoo foundation and the staff of the zoo,” Alturi says. “We also had some bond money from the city of Little Rock that helped with that exhibit, too. So it was a real example of true private and public partnership to help build that new habitat. … I think it really represented a turning point for the zoo, in terms of what the zoo is capable of doing.”

Matlock also notes Alturi’s tenure as zoo director as an important historical touchpoint. Alturi joined the zoo team in 2005 as director of marketing and development and executive director of the newly minted AZF. She stepped into the role of zoo director in 2016 as one of the youngest directors of an AZA-accredited organization and the only woman to ever hold the position in Little Rock. Under her guidance, the zoo has added major elements including the Cheetah Outpost, Arkansas Diamond Express Train, Arkansas Heritage Farm, Wild Wines fundraiser and more.

The zoo’s history is still unfolding. In 2022, the citizens of Little Rock passed a $12 million bond to assist in the zoo’s efforts. Much like the Penguin Pointe process, the new entry complex and exhibits will be funded with a combination of bond money and matching private funds.

Backed by this solid legacy, the zoo continues to impact central Arkansas and beyond. Because ultimately, investment in the zoo is investment in the community.

“The zoo is one of the major tourist attractions in our area,” Alturi says. “And investment in the zoo comes back tenfold in terms of the dollars it creates for the local economy.”

Beyond economics, the zoo holds a special place in the hearts of local families.

“We are a good institution for families to come together and make memories,” Matlock says.

The upgrades, specifically the new welcome plaza, will allow families more opportunities to get outside, enjoy each other and take pictures, all while appreciating nature.

The zoo’s partnership with local schools is another way it connects with the community.


“For me, the education component is really critical,” Scott says. “It’s one of those cool spots where kids and adults learn almost without realizing it.”

“I always say that the zoo is a living classroom,” Matlock adds, “a place for teachers to be able to connect the dots with what their lesson plans have been. And then they can come out here and have really great living visuals.”

As a scientist with a background in environmental dynamics and anthropology, Scott also highlights the zoo’s larger role in conservation around the world.

“The way I explain it in simple terms is, ‘We work to save what we love.’ The science may give us the information that we need to save species, but conservation is so much more than just science. It really figures out how to incorporate people into that process.”

And that’s where the zoo comes in.

“The zoo is the place where people develop that attachment to and love for species that live far on the other side of the world. And we learn to care by having that interaction, that direct connection,” Scott says.

“Our hope is that people do come here and have their eyes opened to these animals, their care and the parts of the world that they come from. And recognize that what we do here in the 72205 zip code can affect and does affect other regions of the world,” Matlock says. “Our zoo is doing things that impact animals all over the world, every day. Hopefully that is something the community can get excited about.”

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