The Palm Beach Zoo & Conservation Society, located in West Palm Beach, is a place where visitors can have a true connection to nature on 23 acres of rare and exotic wildlife.
With the immense help of German immigrant Paul Albert Dreher, the zoo slowly evolved over the span of 50 years from its beginnings as a small, red barn to what is now a major recreational attraction for the City of West Palm Beach.
Today, the zoo boasts more than 500 animals, and approximately 300,000 visitors annually. Visitors can be transformed with up-close animal encounters while traveling shaded, art-lined pathways which inspire many to help engage in conservation causes.
“Nature is love it or lose it. We are facing a mass extinction of wildlife that seems daunting to slow down, let alone stop,” says Palm Beach Zoo President and CEO Margo McKnight. “At Palm Beach Zoo, we connect visitors to wildlife, engage in local fieldwork and support our international wildlife partners. We make the conservation link locally that can lead to a global impact.”
McKnight added that it is the zoo’s mission to save the natural world, so species won’t “wink out on our watch.”
“We provide the gold standard of care for the animals who call the zoo home. They even learn to participate in their own wellness by extending a paw or tail for a routine blood draw, presenting a hip for cold laser therapy and relaxing through a sonogram — all voluntarily,” she says, adding that “the trusting relationships our zoologists foster translate to some of the happiest animals on the planet.”
Daily connections between visitors and animals abound at the zoo, such as those between a young girl and a Florida panther, or a barred owl or American flamingo. These connections and others helped plant the seeds for iconic wildlife heroes including Jane Goodall, Carl Safina and David Attenborough.
It is well-known that time spent with animals in nature has a profound effect on people both emotionally and physically. However, due in large part to technology, people’s attachments to the natural world are becoming tenuous as children and adults spend increasing amounts of time indoors.
The zoo believes it is their role to “lure people outside into nature” and to provide “amazing experiences inhabited by inspiring wildlife nestled in an oasis of nature” required for a healthy community in Palm Beach and across Florida.
“Visitors to our zoo are a powerful force to bring to bear on saving wildlife in wild places,” says Michele Kessler, Palm Beach Zoo Board of Directors chairman.
“By engaging, inspiring and empowering individual guests to act on behalf of wild nature, we are making a difference,” she says. “Nature is in trouble. More than 1 million plants and animals are disappearing from our beloved planet. If we fail to act, hundreds of beloved species — like our Sassafras (Sassy) — will go extinct in our generation, on our watch.”
Kessler adds, “Not all of our visitors will become the next Jane Goodall or David Attenborough. A few will, but each visitor’s collective actions can change the world.”
And, a key mission of the Palm Beach Zoo has evolved into numerous conservation efforts.
One such effort is the transformation of the zoo’s panther habitat with the addition of the Candace S. & William H. Hamm III Education & Conservation Center “to demonstrate the need for corridors (habitat areas connecting wildlife populations separated by roads) in innovative ways.”
Located within the Florida Wetlands section of the zoo, the Hamm Center will enable zoologists to engage in “nose-to-whisker interactions between Florida wildlife and visitors.”
The center will serve to immerse visitors in Palm Beach Zoo’s panther conservation efforts, inspiring generations to help save Florida wildlife through animal sessions and high-tech visual storytelling.
“We both have always cared very much about all animals, rare and endangered, wherever they may be, but in our own state in particular,” says Hamm. “It is an honor to see the building begin to take shape. My late husband, William, would feel the same.”
Among the zoo’s hundreds of animals are tiger cubs, siamang, howler monkey babies and young otters on full display, interacting with visitors daily.
In 2020, new births at the zoo included a baby black howler monkey, a baby siamang and three Malayan tiger cubs that brought a renewed sense of hope and a steeled resolve for the zoo’s mission of saving wildlife and wild places.
Animals such as these represent the rare, threatened and endangered species and their wildlife cousins that Palm Beach Zoo serves to protect.
Many of the zoo’s animals are part of a global population in great zoos around the world and through the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) Species Survival Plan, Palm Beach Zoo does its part to make sure there are genetically healthy populations to ensure that species persist over time.
Outside the zoo, Palm Beach Zoo experts engage in conservation of Florida species providing expertise on initiatives including deploying zoologists for the Path of the Panther, tracking swallow-tailed kites and the endangered snail kite, diving deep into coral reef rescue, breeding endangered Perdido Key beach mice for release and collecting data on local populations of frogs, which are great indicators of the quality of our environment.
Much of South Florida’s backyard wilderness thrives in part due to these projects. Other conservation projects include coral conservation, to protect Florida’s Coral Reef, and Florida Panther conservation, to protect the panther as a key part of Florida’s ecosystem health. Fieldwork in this area led to legislation being passed to protect the state’s wildlife corridor.
In addition, the zoo also partnered with the Avian Research and Conservation Institute to help protect swallow-tailed kites.
Palm Beach Zoo & Conservation Society is located at 1301 Summit Boulevard, West Palm Beach. Contact them at 561-547-9453 or visit palmbeachzoo.org.