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Just Passing Through: Brownsville's Wild Side

Written by Melissa Gaskill.

Moja, a Western lowland gorilla, takes a contemplative moment. Photo by Hugh Lieck

The picturesque, covered entrance on Ringgold Street in Brownsville gives little hint of the lush, subtropical expanse inside, or the more than 1,600 animals that call this special enclave home. Welcome to the 31-acre Gladys Porter Zoo, completely planned, built, and stocked by the Earl C. Sams Foundation, and then donated to the City of Brownsville in 1971.


Gladys Porter, one of Sams’ daughters, envisioned a zoo specializing in endangered species, and worked diligently with the facility until her death in 1980. Known for its success in breeding endangered species, the zoo is also one of the Valley’s most inviting natural areas. the zoo is also one of the Rio Grande Valley’s most inviting natural areas.

Visitors often remark on the abundance of natural water here. A resaca, or oxbow lake, created when the nearby Rio Grande changed course, meanders through the property. When this source of water was channeled, islands, ponds, and other features within the zoo’s landscape took shape. These bodies of water not only serve to physically divide different areas of the zoo, they also create natural exhibits all their own, populated by turtles, fish, prawns, and other denizens of South Texas waterways. The water habitat also attracts wild birds, including chachalacas, egrets, red-crowned parrots, kiskadees, kingfishers and woodpeckers.

“We are a must-stop for birders, with many natives and migrants here,” says Director Dr. Patrick Burchfield. “In fact, the zoo is identified as a birding-trail site by the state of Texas.”

Burchfield points out that the zoo is also a botanical garden, featuring native plants as well as rare specimens such as colorful Hong Kong orchids, Royal Poinciana, and aptly-named shaving brush trees.

Of course, people expect to see exotic animals in a zoo, and this one doesn’t disappoint. In addition to four geographic areas representing Asia, Africa, Tropical America, and Indo-Australia, the Gladys Porter Zoo has a herpetarium that houses snakes, lizards, turtles, and crocodiles. A free-flight aviary, currently under renovation, will have spectacular new birds when it opens this summer.

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