In 1916, the City of Jackson acquired 79 acres of undeveloped land from Samuel Livingston for $36,000 to house what would soon grow to become the Jackson Zoological Park. The zoo consisted of a cage of rabbits, some fireman's pets, and a few native species (i.e., fox, squirrel, deer, raccoon, alligators and rabbits). This meager collection was first housed in the Central Fire Station in downtown Jackson (now the Jackson Chamber of Commerce Building).
The City Council voted to situate the zoo on the land acquired from Samuel Livingston, and it became known as the Livingston Park Zoo. Some of the initial exhibits and buildings that were built by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) are still standing (i.e. the castle and the Elephant House Cafe). Irl Bennett, the zoo's first director, served until 1964.
The zoo survived the depression. However, only a few small exhibits were constructed. (The Zoo's Education Center was built during this time.)
In 1948, the animal collection was expanded due to the efforts of Dr. Jacob L. Reddix, president of Jackson State College (now Jackson State University). Animals were purchased from the Liberian government. Many of these animals died during shipment, but the zoo did acquire three chimpanzees, three gray Magabey monkeys, a white-tailed Colubus, an African coon, a lemur, and two pythons.
During the 50's & 60's the zoo flourished with funds from the parks and recreation departments. The zoo was renamed The R.M. Taylor Zoo, after the city commissioner who spearheaded some development. A giraffe exhibit was added as well as the large mammal moats (aka: Asian Grottos), and Robert Wagner became the zoo director. The zoo's name was changed to The Jackson Zoological Park. The zoo moved toward the current zoo trend, changing from a varied menagerie to an organized, scientific collection.
The zoo added the children's petting zoo in the 1970's, and an animal hospital was built during this time. In 1975, James L. Swigert became the zoo director. With the help of the Jackson City Council and a design group, Swigert put together the zoo's first master plan. Also, during this time, The Friends of the Jackson Zoo organization was formed.
Space from Livingston Park was added to the zoo in 1985, which allowed for the development of the African Rain Forest Exhibit. In 1986, the City Council approved a lease to the Jackson Zoological Park, Inc., to manage for a 5-year period. (This lease was renewed for 10 additional years.) In 1987, Barbara Barrett Piazza was hired as zoo director. In 1989, the zoo was accredited by the AAZPA (now known as the AZA
). The master plan was updated. The children's zoo was renovated into what is now known as the Discovery Zoo.
The early 1990's saw many original buildings updated, to include the conversion of the Elephant House into a cafe. The zoo's animal population increased through intra-zoo trading and through SSP breeding programs. Mississippi state government approved legislation to provide $4 million for capital improvements in the Zoo. In 1998, the city agreed to a $1.5 million match. This expansion will include the African Savannah and the Mississippi Wilderness Exhibit. It will be the largest capital improvement project in the zoo's history. The Zoo Area Progressive Partnership (ZAPP) was founded in 1996 to endeavor to assist with the regeneration of the neighborhoods surrounding the zoo.
The zoo also houses several small projects to include: Discovery Reef, the Aviary, and the Indochinese Tiger exhibit.