For Animals. Forever.

by Paul Swen

As a young boy sits atop his dad’s broad shoulders. It’s kind of the best way to travel if you have the means. And it certainly provides an outstanding view. In his left hand, the boy is clutching what appears to be some sort of furry critter. His right hand is wildly pointing forward and he’s yelling, “Oh wow, do you see that? DO YOU SEE THAT!?” His eyes are wide with delight, and it seems he has a smile that covers his entire face. Beneath the wild gesticulations of boyhood excitement his dad tries to keep his balance while he too grins in amazement. “Daddy, daddy that’s a lemur, a ring-tailed lemur from Madagascar. From Madagascar in Africa! I can’t believe it. Look! Look!”

A few steps away a young girl is running down a meandering, chilly hallway. It smells kind of like the ocean. She’s a little tentative as she makes her way around the corner. Then she stops and suddenly, her excitement can’t be held back. She lets out, what can only be described as a “scream of joy” and races to the glass of the aquarium. Inches from her adoring and adorable face, two penguins gracefully swim by, trailed by a stream of gem-like bubbles. “Penguins, mommy. Penguins! Look. Look!” she gasps. 

Her mother rushes to her side and watches the graceful, underwater ballet of the swimming birds. “Did you know these penguins are from Africa?” she asks her daughter, who is following the birds’ every move with awe. “Africa? You’re teasing me. Penguins aren’t from Africa! It’s too hot there. That’s silly,” the little one retorts. “Well, these are. They are a very special species of penguin that are really rare. They live in very southern tip of Africa where it is just cold enough,” her mom explains. A long, quiet “Wooooow” follows.

“And that’s what it’s all about,” Hayes Caldwell says with some reflection. “The joy of discovery is what this place is all about.”

Hayes is a man of few words. He prefers to lead quietly, with steady focus and intent. He has spent his entire adult life caring for the Caldwell Zoo with the constant goal of sharing the magnificence of wildlife and making smiles happen. After some gentle prodding about the history of the zoo and why his family started it, he explains, “My uncle D. K. Caldwell saw how fascinated kids are with animals and he wanted to do something special for the Tyler community that he loved. He believed the best way to teach kids was to make learning fun. So, we built this zoo to be a resource to the whole community—a place where kids can explore, curiosity is inspired, and everyone has a local source for good, smart fun.”

This special place, located just north of downtown, in one of the fastest growing cities in America, has seen a lot of changes. Since its inception, way back in 1953, there have been numerous wars, recessions, and even pandemics, but the good, ol’ Caldwell Zoo has continually stayed open to invite guests to explore and connect. Hayes has been at the helm for almost five decades and that’s one reason why this zoo is so cherished by the community. The “park” has maintained a consistent standard of quiet excellence while carefully growing and improving to continually reflect the standards of the times. Generations of cherished memories have been made here. Holidays have been celebrated, anniversaries remembered, first dates have strolled along the pathways, and countless special moments have happened on these shady grounds. So many birthdays have been rejoiced right here, including those for flamingos, deer, monkeys, kudu, impala, and even giraffe, just to name of few. It’s no ordinary zoo. 

“Our goals have always been community-oriented,” Hayes explains. “This has never been a money-making venture. The zoo has always been, and always will be, a place where everyone can relax and enjoy some of the wonders of the natural world.” And that feeling is obvious when you step through the front gates.

Everything here is designed for guests to move at their own pace and take in the details without the hustle and bustle of some big amusement park. The whole place is designed for people to experience wildlife in a beautiful, natural setting. “Obviously, most people can’t travel far and wide to see all sorts of different animals,” Hayes continues, “so, we built a home for some wonders of the world here in Tyler. That way, we can all see it. And then we can all cherish it.”

With almost fifty years under his belt as Executive Director of the zoo, a vast treasure trove of memories has made Mr. Caldwell a little reflective. “There have been so many moments that I’ve been blessed to be a part of. Helping to save the Atwater Prairie Chicken from extinction has been a pretty big deal. Successfully breeding threatened species like the Grevy’s Zebra, the reticulated giraffe, the cheetah, and the African penguin are real highlights for sure. And, of course, there’s the arrival of Mac and Emanti. I’ll never forget seeing those two, young, bull elephants step into their new home. After years and years of planning, to have everything come off without a hitch was pretty amazing. Giving those two elephants a safe and secure home is certainly a highlight.” 

Now, Hayes is preparing the zoo for its next big transition. New plans are being developed to honor the zoo’s official 75th Anniversary in 2028. The zoo developed its first master plan in 1976, establishing a framework emphasizing the natural beauty of different geographical regions. Over the years, habitats have been modified and conservation programs have been added, but the changes still honor that original concept: connect people with wildlife through expansive, natural exhibits and engaging activities. The zoo currently has three, main geographical regions including North America, South America, and Africa. The African area was the center of the last major expansion. The next phase of the updated master plan focuses on the oldest part of the zoo, South America.

The plans for the new South American section aren’t just a big deal for zoo lovers. Obviously, it’s great for the city of Tyler to have a new attraction, but it will also be an important educational center about one of the most important wilderness areas on the planet. The new South American section will highlight the wonders of the Amazon, the world’s largest rainforest and home to an incredible diversity of wildlife. Iconic animals like the giant river otter will romp in a river lined with capybara and giant anteaters. A myriad of incredible birds will fly overhead. Jaguars will slink through the grass and sloth dangle lazily in the trees. It will be a stunning experience for sure. Construction is scheduled to begin in the summer of 2022 and will hopefully open about one year later. And this is just the beginning. Plans for the next phase of improvements to the North American area are already underway.

Yes, major, positive developments are happening at the zoo, including changes in leadership. A new Chief Executive Officer is joining the team and Hayes is stepping into a fresh role as President of The Caldwell Foundation, a nonprofit that helps support the work of the zoo. After a diligent, national search, Steve Marshall from the Audubon Zoo & Park in New Orleans will be the next leader of the Caldwell Zoo. 

“It’s time,” Hayes says. “I’ve been here a long time and now we have the perfect opportunity to bring in some new energy and insight. The zoo has grown quite a lot over the years. We’ve made a bounty of great memories and done quite a bit of good work for protecting wildlife. Now, we must prepare the zoo for the future, and we’re quite excited that Steve is going to join us here in Tyler. His vast experience will guide the zoo through the Master Plan and build on the traditions we’ve established. This is an exciting time for sure.”

Zoos have dramatically evolved over the years and this gem in East Texas has certainly grown to be something beyond the expectations of the Caldwell family. The city of Tyler is growing at a record pace because it’s a pretty great place to live. The Caldwell Zoo certainly adds to the richness of our culture.  What began as a collection of animals for kids, has grown to be a cornerstone of the community with excellent education programs, state-of-the-art animal care, and world-class wildlife conservation projects. It’s impossible to count all the wonderful memories that have been made here over the decades. And it may be hard to believe that soon we’ll all be able to celebrate seventy-five years of service. This special place was built to be a gift to the community and thanks to uncommon vision it looks like it will be providing us with thousands and thousands of smiles to come. So, stay tuned and get ready to enjoy more great changes and cherished memories.