The idea for the Memphis Zoo began as early as 1904 when Colonel Robert Galloway started lobbying for funds to build a home for a Southern black bear named Natch. The bear, who was the mascot of the Memphis Turtles baseball team, was being kept chained to a tree in Overton Park. The bear had been given to A.B. Carruthers, a local businessman, for payment.
Natch was soon joined by several other abandoned wild animals and Galloway presented the city with a plan to form a zoo, in order to house them. After several unsuccessful attempts, the Memphis Park Commission finally allocated $1,200 to establish the Memphis Zoo in 1906. Galloway was still using his own personal funds to care for the animals at the time but he promised the commission that money for an animal building and the purchase of large animals would be obtained through the support of citizens.
The Memphis Zoo Association (incorporated in 1910 as the Memphis Zoological Society) was formed to generate the necessary funds. The group held a baseball game, its first fundraising event, in August 1906 where they raised $3,628. In conjunction with city funds, the money was used to build 23 simple cages and a row of concrete bear dens. Support continued and in 1907 the first building at the Zoo, Galloway Hall, was built. In 1909 the Carnivora Building was constructed to house big cats. The original elephant house, now part of the education complex, was also built in 1909.
In 1986 the Memphis Zoological Society commissioned a master plan for the Memphis Zoo. The plan, created by Design Consortium of New Orleans, has upgraded the 70-acre facility into one of the world’s first-class zoos with exhibits like CHINA, Primate Canyon, Animals of the Night, Commercial Appeal Cat Country, Once Upon A Farm and Dragon’s Lair.
Today, the Memphis Zoo serves as a crown jewel for the city. It is Memphis’ highest attended attraction and has been ranked the "top zoo in the country" by two, independent surveys. The Zoo’s conservation programs circle the globe – from cooperative programs in China for giant pandas to local efforts to save the Louisiana pine snake. More than 90,000 children visit the Zoo on annual field trips and more than 100,000 people visit on free admission every year.