The Gladys Porter Zoo, in Brownsville, covers 31½ acres. It is unique in that it was built, stocked, staffed, equipped, and then donated to the community by a single contributor, the Earl C. Sams Foundation. Gladys Sams Porter, in her position as president of the foundation, was instrumental in establishing the zoo. During her travels in the 1960s she became increasingly concerned about the plight of the world's wildlife. She conceived the idea of a zoo for the Rio Grande valley at this time, and the members of the Sams Foundation decided this would be their next project. Mrs. Porter was closely involved with the planning, construction, and stocking of the zoo. She obtained the land from the city of Brownsville and loaned money to the city to help relocate families whose property was purchased for the zoo. Thus the project not only served to establish the zoo but also aided in carrying out an urban-renewal program. The zoo's mission of education, research, conservation, and recreation is achieved through the efforts of the staff, the board of directors, and an active volunteer program.
Construction began in 1968. The zoo was opened to the public on September 3, 1971, although building was not completed until 1972. The zoo buildings and land are owned by the city of Brownsville. The animal collection is owned by the Valley Zoological Society, a nonprofit organization chartered by the state of Texas. In addition to the grants received from the Earl C. Sams Foundation and the Lightner Sams Foundation, contributions are received from the city of Brownsville and through membership subscriptions. Donations are added to an endowment trust established to perpetuate the zoo, and the capital improvement needs are met by an annual fund-raising effort known as Zoofari. Revenues from the food and beverage concessions owned by the zoo also provide income.
The zoo's animals, which include the largest single collection of endangered species of birds, reptiles, and mammals in the world, total 1,800 and comprise about 400 species of mammals, reptiles, amphibians, birds, invertebrates, and fish. The zoo has a reputation for its breeding program for rare and endangered animals. The majority of its inhabitants consist of young, paired animals representing some species' only remaining breeding stock in captivity. Endangered animals are bred with the hope that eventually some of the offspring can be released. The zoo's conservation efforts have also met with success. The work of the staff with wildlife authorities in Mexico on behalf of the rare Coahuilan box turtle and the Atlantic Ridley sea turtle have been recognized by the governments of both the United States and Mexico.
The zoo is divided into four main sections-Africa, Southwest Asia, Indo-Australia, and South America-and animals are housed according to their geographic origin. A fifth area houses animals for convenience and easy viewing. The collection features displays of animals in simulated natural habitats on islands surrounded by moats. Along with its breeding and conservation programs, its design has earned the Gladys Porter Zoo recognition as a world-class zoological park.
Is history important to you?
We need your support because we are a non-profit organization that relies upon contributions from our community in order to record and preserve the history of our state. Every dollar helps.
The Gladys Porter Zoo Animal Album (Brownsville: Gladys Porter Zoo, 1983).
The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.
Don D. Farst,
“Gladys Porter Zoo,”
Handbook of Texas Online,
accessed August 19, 2022,
Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
Original Publication Date:
January 1, 1995