How time flies. It’s hard to believe five years have passed since Collier voters said “Yes” to purchasing the land under Naples Zoo to save the historic institution from development. The staff and Zoo Board are truly humbled by the overwhelming support from the community. At the same time, five years after the vote I still encounter many people who aren’t sure about how things now work at the Zoo.
Myth: The Zoo is a for-profit, family business.
Busted: Not since December 19, 2005 when the nonprofit 501(c)(3) The Naples Zoo, Inc. assumed operations.
Myth: The Tetzlaff family still runs the Zoo.
Busted: This is a grave discredit to the dedicated 22 Directors on the Naples Zoo Board. While the Board chose to retain me as the Zoo’s Director, I am an employee of the Board.
Myth: The City of Naples now runs the Zoo.
Busted: False. Although the Zoo greatly appreciates the support of the city and its residents, we operate on Collier County owned land.
Myth: The County bought and now operates the Zoo.
Busted: Also false. While the County bought the land, taxpayers did not have to pay for Zoo assets and animals. The Zoo is also not a government entity. The Zoo does work closely with staff in Public Services and Parks and Recreation Divisions, but Naples Zoo, Inc. leases the land and operates the Zoo.
And if you really want to be in-the-know about Naples Zoo, here’s a timeline of how Naples Zoo got to where it is today.
1919- German botanist, Dr. Henry Nehrling establishes a private botanical collection on 13 acres.
1929 - Nehrling passes away. Locals raid his garden of transplantable, rare specimens. It grows unattended for two decades.
1952- Cincinnati entrepreneur Julius Fleischmann purchases Nehrling’s garden and surrounding land. He creates walking paths, constructs buildings, digs the lakes, and introduces an extensive waterfowl collection.
1954- Caribbean Gardens opens to the public and features a piano playing “Duck Vaudeville” show.
1967- While on a trip to film the Everglades, wild animal experts Larry and Nancy Jane Tetzlaff along with their five-year-old son David visit the Caribbean Gardens. Enamored with the lush tropical setting, they visualize the beauty of blending exotic animals with the botanical. The garden, however, is not for sale.
1968 - Fleischmann passes away. In a stroke of serendipity, one of Fleischmann’s sons discusses the garden’s unknown future with a friend who managed the Cedar Point theme park where the Tetzlaffs had a wildlife attraction. Neither knew of the Tetzlaffs’ earlier interest.
1969- With a 15 year lease, the Tetzlaffs create wildlife habitats within the Naples garden while maintaining summer operations at the Cedar Point theme park in Ohio.
1969 - Jungle Larry & Safari Jane’s African Safari at Caribbean Gardens opens to the public. Attendance doubles in the first year of operation. The attraction features animal exhibits, shows, and a guided tram tour.
1984- Larry Tetzlaff passes away. The original lease concludes leaving the Tetzlaffs with only an informal year to year agreement. Despite this limitation, wife Nancy and sons David and Tim continue to invest in improving the Zoo.
1993- To focus their efforts to create a world-class zoo in Naples, the Tetzlaffs make the difficult decision to conclude their 30 year association with Cedar Point.
1994- Fleischmann’s widow, Dorette, passes. The Fleischmann estate remains in probate for years.
2001- Following years of preparation, Naples Zoo becomes one of the top 10% of the nation’s wildlife exhibitors when it achieves accreditation by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums. Accreditation is valid for five years, but is revoked if standards are not maintained.
2002- The Fleischmann estate is settled.
2003- After years of discussions, formal application to become a nonprofit Zoo begins.
2004- When it becomes clear the land under the Zoo will be sold, the Tetzlaffs approach the Board of County Commissioners to make the public aware of the situation. Commissioners vote to let the taxpayers decide if they want to keep their Zoo. 73% of voters say yes.
2005- The Trust for Public Land purchases the entire 166-acre Fleischmann parcel. In order to allow the community to keep the Zoo’s 43 acres as well as 70 acres for a passive park to be part of the Greenway project, they sell these parcels to the County. The remainder was sold to a private developer and The Conservancy of Southwest Florida.
2005- On December 19, the nonprofit Naples Zoo, Inc. takes over operations when a lease is signed with Collier County. Although there were significant concerns about conditions of the lease on both sides, any negotiating at the time would jeopardize the entire sale. To guarantee the Zoo and nearby land was saved, the Commissioners and Zoo agreed to the terms including a significant lease payment from Zoo revenue.
2006- The Zoo once again achieves accreditation by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums.
2007- The Zoo opens Leopard Rock exhibit and makes the trails wheelchair and stroller friendly.
2008- The Zoo opens the Fosas of Madagascar exhibit. Naples Zoo unveils Master Plan in February encompassing Nehrling’s surviving trees which receive historical designation later that year.
2009- The Zoo opens Black Bear Hammock, the largest black bear exhibit at an accredited Zoo in the eastern USA. The bond to purchase the 43-acres of Zoo land and 70 acres of greenspace is paid off 6 years early.
Most recently, the Board of Collier County Commissioners voted to review the lease terms between the County and Zoo to make it fair and more consistent with other nonprofits operating on public land. This will allow the Zoo to dedicate its funds to new exhibits like the upcoming giraffe habitat, enhance visitor amenities, and expand the wildlife conservation mission locally and globally.
Personally and as an organization, we remember what was almost lost here and will always be grateful to the voters for their support. That’s why even though we operate on a very tight budget, we’re proud that Naples Zoo offers Collier residents benefits far beyond what most zoos offer their communities - even Zoos that receive millions of operational dollars each year which Naples Zoo does not receive.
So as a reminder, Collier residents receive discounted Family and Grandparent memberships so they can visit all year long. Also, Collier residents can enjoy the Zoo for free when they can most enjoy it - on the first Saturday of each month. Free entry is good all day long with proof of residency. If you haven’t been in this zoological garden for a while, come on in. It’s an exciting time with even more on the way - and you can be part of it of making it even better for people and wildlife.