The Tulsa Zoo started with a vision. Then Tulsa Parks Superintendent Will O. Doolittle proposed the creation of a zoo that would be infused with conservation ideals. Doolittle was a passionate naturalist and conservationist, a man who believed close contact with nature was a great public benefit. He believed a zoo would “aid in preserving many species of native mammals, birds, and reptiles that are approaching extinction,” and argued that a central purpose of a zoo is to provide a properly planned and maintained collection of living animals to provide an educational experience for the public.
Indeed, as the Tulsa Zoo took shape under Doolittle’s direction, it championed conservation causes. An onsite natural history museum supplemented the living collection. Zoo staff conducted education programs. More significantly, zoo staff took practical and political steps to protect wildlife. Director Hugh Davis worked with Doolittle during the 1930s and ‘40s to protect waterfowl in the Tulsa area. The two men lobbied for laws to protect birds of prey, prevent the importation of wild bird plumage, and create wildlife sanctuaries.
The conservation influence Hugh Davis brought to the Tulsa Zoo shaped its future growth. He pioneered the outdoor installations, created with native limestone, designed “to give commodious quarters [to the animals] and a pleasing effect in harmony with the landscape.” In the ‘50s and ‘60s, modern zoo design lead to the creation of the natural, moated, openness of barless exhibits, where visitors could have an unimpeded view of the animals. The creation of a new zoo, with indoor and outdoor exhibits in the Primate and Aviary building, now the Conservation Center, was the best in animal husbandry.
The next era of the Tulsa Zoo — transforming into a living museum — was Dave Zucconi’s brainchild. His vision was for zoo visitors to see and understand the relationship between animals, plants, and humans in diverse environments. The nationally renowned Robert J. LaFortune North American Living Museum, showcasing animals not by type but by habitat, explained the environment in which the humans and animals lived.
The Tulsa Zoo is continuing to evolve creating large, immersive exhibits that allow zoo guests to feel transported to the native environments of the animals. Exhibits like the Tropical Rainforest, Helmerich Sea Lion Cove, and now the Lost Kingdom give a sense of place and provide outdoor and indoor spaces for guests to view the animals year-round, regardless of weather.
Tulsa can be proud of its zoo for maintaining a commitment to high standards of animal care, for increasing our contribution to global wildlife conservation, for supporting the local economy, and for serving as an educational resource in the community. Our upcoming exhibits, including the new Lost Kingdom, will continue to help us live our mission of inspiring a passion for wildlife in every guest, every day.
About the Tulsa Zoo: The Tulsa Zoo is open 363 days each year. It is home to about 400 species and more than 3,000 animals. The region’s largest daily attraction, the Tulsa Zoo in 2017 achieved record attendance, exceeding 700,000 for the first time in its 90-year history.