The Austin Zoo is not in the middle of town.
Down a windy Hill Country road, it’s barely within the southwestern boundary of the city limits. It’s not as big as most other zoos and you won’t find elephants or giraffes here, but there are hundreds of other animals.
“These are the black bear cubs that we rescued from when they were orphaned when their mom abandoned them southwest of Portland,” Austin Zoo director Patti Clark says.
She says there are a lot of stories like that here, stories like Babe, the big Yorkshire pig.
“Babe was a high school agriculture class project,” Clark says, “and the young lady who raised him couldn’t bear the thought of him going to the usual end for such animals and contacted us to see if we could give him a forever home.”
The Austin Zoo is a rescue zoo.
“We provide a forever homes to animals that have no other place to go,” Clark says. “So animals that have been abandoned, abused or neglected even, they are welcomed here – as we have space available of course.”
Having enough space is one of the zoo’s biggest challenges. There are a lot of animals in need out there, so the zoo has a unique policy.
“We don’t actively breed animals,” Clark says. “We either house the animals same species or separately from one another or, yes, usually we try to neuter the males.”
Usually, a baby animal at a zoo is a big celebration – think of the panda cams or the contests to name a new zebra or lion cubs. But even breeding at big zoos doesn’t happen willy nilly. Dallas Zoo’s Senior Director of Living Collections Harrison Edell says it’s really an intricate, coordinated science.
“If we’re talking about the giraffe species survival plan, the coordinator for that program is a curator at Nashville Zoo and there is a steady bookkeeper who is the pedigree keeper for every single giraffe in North America,” Edell says. “Every year or so they do a full analysis of the population and try and look at which individual giraffes have lots of relatives and which individual giraffes don’t have big families and that serves to help us prioritize which giraffes should be having calves and which ones we probably don’t want to prioritize for breeding.”
That’s how major zoos keep up their populations. Except in rare cases, like perhaps the elephants in Swaziland, zoos are not getting animals from the wild anymore. So part of their mission is to showcase and even preserve species, like the scimitar-horned oryx, a desert antelope from North Africa.
“They’re extinct in the wild,” Edell says. “There aren’t any left in the wild. But the species survival plan coordinator for those animals is based at Santa Barbara Zoo – her job is really important – she’s kind of the single person who is responsible for keeping our captive population healthy.”
But of course for both zoos – big, state-of-the-art Dallas and small, rescue-focused Austin – another big goal is education.
“Anytime we get a kid who is growing up in the city out to the zoo and they feed a giraffe or they pet a flamingo in one of our outreach programs or they get to smell an anteater for the first time and their eyes light up – that’s really cool,” Edell says.
For the Austin Zoo, educational outreach also means lessons in preventing more animals from needing rescue. That includes being mindful of which pets to pick.
“These are Galapagos tortoises,” Clark says. “Galapagos can live upwards of 150 years. So getting some of these animals as a pet is more than a lifelong commitment because many of your birds can live 40 to 80 years as well.”
So the Austin Zoo may not be as big or as exotic as many of the others across Texas, but it works for families such as Morgan Rocha’s.
“I was asking for things to do to get my one-year-old out of the house and they said the zoo is a good idea,” she says.
As her little one grows, she thinks so will the appreciation of this little zoo.
“Well, they get to learn about the different animals and their habitats and the foods they eat,” Rocha says. “This being a rescue zoo it’d teach them that it’s good to take care of animals and to have a nice place for them to go if they need a good home.”