On one of those golden autumn afternoons in 1984, newlyweds Ramona and Lee Bass meandered through the Fort Worth Zoo completely unaware that they were about to have a life-changing encounter.
It is a single, defining moment in their life together that is so marked by Providence that more than three decades later, they still point to it as one might point to the place where the flame first touched the kindling and say, “That is where it began.”
“It was the tigers,” Ramona Bass said. Her dark eyes flash at the memory of the majestic cats housed behind bars in old-fashioned concrete enclosures. “I felt so sorry for the tigers … ”
Lee Bass leans forward smiling. “I said, ‘Well, you live here now,’ ” he said. “ ‘Why don’t you do something about it?’ ”
And from that moment, their course was set. The improvement of the Fort Worth Zoo and an unwavering dedication to wildlife conservation and education have become their common ground, and more particularly, Ramona Bass’ life’s work.
And so in 2014, the Basses pledged $30 million to commemorate 30 years of service to the Fort Worth Zoo and its programs. That first gift was the start of A Wilder Vision, a $100 million capital campaign.
Today marks the beginning of a public drive to raise the last $10 million.
The campaign will fund the completion of the zoo’s 1985 master plan in four phases over eight years. Habitats will be renovated and 10 acres of new exhibits will be added, ensuring the continuation of the zoo’s groundbreaking breeding programs and innovative educational agendas. The entertainment aspect, which is the zoo’s main draw, also will be enhanced, a hefty maintenance endowment will be set in place, and a new event space will offer a party venue.
Ramona Bass, the zoo’s chief fundraiser, has already quietly raised $90 million of the $100 million from corporations, foundations and individuals.
“People have been incredibly generous,” she said. “And not one of them has asked for a naming opportunity. … They’ve just given their money and not asked for a thing.”
According to Lee Bass, the public push is something new. The Fort Worth Zoological Association manages daily operations of the city-owned zoo in a public/private partnership. Over the years, more than a dozen major zoo exhibits have opened, all with funds raised privately and quietly.
“We have had broad-based community support through the years … even school kids with a bucket of change from their class, but this is different in that it is a more structured outreach to the community,” he explained.
Ramona Bass added: “We’re changing now because we think the people of Fort Worth want to be involved in making the zoo better. It’s their zoo, and they love the zoo. … A million people come every year … and I hope they want to be part of something wonderful.”
The public campaign will span several years and offer giving opportunities including online donations, hosting a zoo lemonade stand, eating at local restaurants during fundraiser nights and more, zoo officials say. (For information, visit www.fortworthzoo.org.)
Phase one: African savanna
Construction of the African savanna, scheduled to open in the spring of 2018, began months ago, pushing into unused zoo space adjoining a soccer field off Colonial Parkway. The improvement projects will not change the boundaries of the zoo; the soccer fields, for example, will remain as they are now, zoo officials say.
For all the zoo’s serious work in conservation and education, entertainment is still its main draw, and this new exhibit will be at the top of the showbiz heap.
Dotted with watering holes crowded with flamingos, the large enclosure will showcase a giraffe herd along with black rhinos, ostriches, zebras and more animals that naturally share Africa’s wild savanna. The “Giraffe Encounter” will let zoo visitors stand eye to eye with these gentle giants to feed them.
“This will be so much fun,” Ramona Bass said, “but the hippos have the grooviest exhibit.”
The hippo enclosure will be something new in the zoo world, zoo director Mike Fouraker said. “We’re building a true hippo river … 70 feet of river continually flowing through the exhibit. You’ll be able to see the hippos below the water surface and above the surface. It’s unlike anything else in the nation.
“That technology has been a real challenge, but it’s raising the bar for hippo enclosures everywhere.”
Shady walkways will circle the African Savanna. “There will be no dead end,” Ramona said. “You’ll be able to walk completely around the exhibit.”
Food service will be available in this shady corner of the zoo, too. But that’s not all.
A private bridge will lead to a new climate-controlled event space that can accommodate 1,000 guests. Overlooking the African Savanna, this space, with its own permanent kitchen, may become a popular new party venue — a place for weddings, receptions, holiday and charity events. A watering hole and special lighting will offer after-dark viewing of some of the savanna animals from this spot.
The second phase, Elephant Springs, will open in 2020, with a water-rich exhibit that almost doubles the size of the elephant herd’s current space and features a half-acre “lake.”
The zoo’s elephant herd is unique, Ramona Bass said. “It’s three generations. … We’ve had two new babies, but the elephants have to have more space.”
With a wild elephant killed every 15 minutes by poachers, she said, she and others see zoos with successful breeding programs as the only way to assure populations of some of the world’s endangered and threatened species.
Phase three, Hunters of Africa and Asian Predators, comes in 2022 with cascading waterfalls and pools surrounded by exhibits that house wild dogs and large cats including tigers and leopards. The clouded leopard and the African leopard, new species for the zoo, will be introduced then.
The last phase of A Wilder Vision comes in 2025 with the revamping of the core of the zoo and the demolition of what Ramona Bass called “the long, skinny road” that leads from the Museum of Living Art, the snake and reptile house, to the penguin exhibit.
This final stage, called Forests and Jungles, will offer shady, winding paths and exhibits of animals such as the okapi, another animal new to the zoo, and other species found only in the deepest parts of the Congo’s rain forest.
But even when that final phase opens, the zoo won’t be finished, Bass said.
“We will have completed the master plan, but I don’t think the zoo will ever be finished. … We’ve been involved for 30 years and there’s always something else to do … achieve,” she said.
Lee Bass said his initial gift was meant to honor and celebrate his wife’s three decades of work and their shared vision of the zoo as a conservation, education and entertainment center that is consistently recognized as one of the top zoos in the nation.
“This has been her passion, her blood sweat and tears and her imagination. … It’s her creativity and her enthusiasm,” Lee Bass said. He laughed. “Our three children say the fourth sibling is the zoo, and that’s the one that gets all the attention.”
But those who travel far seldom travel alone, and both Basses credit the support of many other people for the zoo’s success. Ramona Bass points to the generosity of donors who, through the years, have given more than $200 million. Both Basses are lavish in their praise of the zoo staff, as well as supportive city officials.
“We couldn’t have made this journey without their support,” Ramona Bass said.
Ardon Moore, president of the Fort Worth Zoological Association, credits Ramona Bass with the international attention the attraction receives in zoo and wildlife conservation circles.
“Getting to be one of the top zoos in the nation is really easy,” he teased. “You find a lady who is willing to spend time every week for 30 years officing in a hot trailer and walking around muddy construction sites, and who will raise 250 million dollars; piece of cake.”
Individuals and foundations giving $1 million and more to the Fort Worth Zoo’s A Wilder Vision campaign:
- Mr. and Mrs. Lee M. Bass
- Paul E. Andrews Jr. Foundation
- Edward P. Bass
- Sid R. Bass
- The Burnett Foundation
- Sid W. Richardson Foundation
- The Walton Family Foundation
- Amon G. Carter Foundation
- The Happy Davis Foundation, Inc.
- Kimbell Art Foundation
- Kleinheinz Family Foundation
- T.J. Brown and C.A. Lupton Foundation
- Joe and Jessie Crump Fund and Martha Sue Parr Trust
- JPMorgan Chase Trustees
- Ardon and Iris Moore Foundation
- The Morris Foundation
- Mr. and Mrs. Robert L. Patton Jr.
- The Rosenthal Family
- The Ryan Foundation
- Schollmaier Foundation/Rae and Ed Schollmaier
- William E. Scott Foundation
Source: Fort Worth Zoo
Fort Worth Zoo plans at a glance
Phase one: African Savanna
Completion date: spring 2018
Highlights: An elevated observation deck will allow guests to stand eye-to-eye with giraffes and feed them. A new exhibit will allow underwater viewing of hippos.
Phase two: Elephant Springs
Completion date: spring 2020
Highlights: The size of the elephant yard will triple, and a 500,000-gallon pool will be added for the elephant herd. A one-horned rhino will get a new home next to the elephants.
Phase three: Hunters of Africa and Asian Predators
Completion date: spring 2022
Highlights: The African lions will get a redesigned habitat and expanded yard. Cheetahs will move to a renovated space near the lions. Striped hyenas, Malayan tigers, clouded leopard, African leopard and a pack of African wild dogs will also live in the habitat.
Phase four: Forests & Jungles
Completion date: spring 2025
Highlights: The zoo will welcome a new species, okapi. The African bongo and Sumatran orangutan will live in the exhibit. The jaguar will move from the Texas Wild area to a new forest habitat.
For more information, visit www.fortworthzoo.org.