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Interview
Ramona Bass

This year, Fort Worth Zoo’s new Elephant Springs habitat was awarded a Thea Award for Outstanding Achievement – a sign of how far the zoo has come since co-chair Ramona Bass first visited in the 1980s and decided something needed to be done. Magali Robathan finds out how she turned it around


When Ramona Bass first visited Forth Worth Zoo on a date in 1983, it was a depressing place. “What I found was a very disturbing, old time zoo,” she tells me. “Animals in cramped, concrete enclosures with chain link fences. I was frankly horrified.”

Lifelong animal lover Ramona Bass turned to her then fiance, now husband – businessman and philanthropist Lee Bass – and told him what she thought of the place, and he said, “Why don’t you do something about it?”

And so she did.

“I’m not sure he knew what he was getting into,” she says with a laugh. “It became my passion and my purpose.”

Over the next four decades, Bass and her team transformed the zoo, opening 18 new permanent habitats and support facilities, releasing “countless” animals back into the wild, welcoming 30 million visitors and raising hundreds of millions of dollars.

Today, Fort Worth Zoo is one of the US’s best loved zoos and a key player in conservation efforts worldwide, supporting projects in more than 30 countries. This year, it won a coveted Thea Award for Outstanding Achievement for its new Elephant Springs habitat, which is part of a $130m masterplan vision to further improve animal habitats across the zoo. It also plays a key role in conservation education, partnering with universities, offering research opportunities and internships and providing a wide range of learning opportunities for children.

“The whole thing just started with me wanting to make things a bit better for the animals,” Bass tells me. “It grew to be a much more complex educational and conservation behemoth. Now look what it has turned into!”

EARLY DAYS
Once Bass had committed to the project, she started by recruiting local people to the cause and re-establishing the effectively defunct Fort Worth Zoological Association (FWZA) with a new board of directors and executive committee.

The zoo, which opened in 1909 with one lion, two bear cubs, an alligator, a coyote, a peacock and some rabbits, was owned by the City of Fort Worth and had suffered for years from decreasing support and funding. Bass and the team set about trying to convince the city to set up a public-private partnership, with the city retaining ownership and the FWZA in complete control of fundraising and the management of the zoo.

“We realised we weren’t going to be able to do what we wanted to do with a publicly run institution,” says Bass. “There was too much red tape; too much politics.”

Persuading the city to accept their proposal wasn’t easy though. “It was a battle,” Bass admits. “They were wary, but I can understand that. We were young, I came out of nowhere – people were asking, Who is this girl who thinks she can run our zoo? We had to build up trust, but we won them over in the end.”

FWZA assumed complete management of the zoo in 1991 and fundraising began in earnest – since the privatisation, more than $300m has been raised to improve conditions and update the zoo. I ask Bass how much of a challenge fundraising has been.

“I am like the ever-ready battery – I never quit,” she says, and after spending just a short time in her company, I can see how she would be hard to say no to.

“In the beginning it was tougher, but our record began to speak for itself,” she adds. “People in Fort Worth realised we were serious about our mission and what a treasure the zoo had become and how we got here. Now they don’t try to run away from me anymore – well, maybe a few!”

Bass’s perseverance and passion for improving conditions for the animals began to pay off – the first big project was an overhaul of Texas Wild, a $40m, eight acre exhibit celebrating the ecological diversity of Texas and its wildlife, which opened in 2001.

Next was the Museum of Living Art (MOLA) – an inspired name for the zoos new heptarium. Designed by architects Gideon Toal and opened in 2010 it marked a move away from traditional zoo buildings, with its dramatic architectural shell housing a range of habitats including tropical forests, deserts and swamps. Large windows display the animal exhibits as though they are living pieces of art and allow visitors to get up close to amphibian and reptile species including snakes, lizards, crocodilia, komodo dragons, lizards, tortoises and frogs.

“We wanted to change the perceptions of the way people see these ‘creepy, crawly creatures’,” says Bass, of the inspiration behind MOLA. “They’re beautiful animals that make contributions to their ecosystems and they should be observed in beautiful habitats, in a worthy space to help foster an appreciation.”

A WILDER VISION
For Ramona and the team, the big focus now is on A Wilder Vision, an ambitious $130m masterplan that includes renovated habitats and 10 acres of new exhibit space.

“In our ever-urbanizing world there is a worrisome disconnect between people and nature,” says Bass. “We must explore solutions that mutually benefit man and animal, and further man’s proactive role in the survival of these magnificent creatures. A Wilder Vision encompasses not only a mission for conserving the animal kingdom, but also for educating and motivating future leaders.”

Planning started in 2011; since then Bass and FWZA board president Ardon Moore have put together a team of designers and architects to bring the vision to life, and they are now halfway through the four phase plan. The first exhibit, African Savanna, opened in 2018 – designed by Halbach-Dietz Architects, it aims to immerse visitors in the animals’ environment, offering several panoramic views of species including giraffes, springboks, ostriches, hippos and antelope sharing a habitat.

“To be able to put all of the wildlife together was wonderful,” says Bass. “The hippos in particular needed a new place so badly – I used to walk past them and say, ‘Girls, soon, I promise. I’ll get you a new place’.”

In Elephant Springs, opened in 2021, three generations of Asian elephants roam among interconnected yards and watering holes and a 400,000 gallon river, while greater one horned rhino explore neighbouring habitats. Earlier this year, Elephant Springs won a Thea Award for Outstanding Achievement from the Themed Entertainment Association (TEA) – the only zoo to receive the award.

“We knew we were creating something special with Elephant Springs – both for our beloved herd and our guests,” says Bass. “We’re incredibly proud to be recognised for creating a space that offers a highly immersive guest experience, but more importantly provides a natural, lush and enriching environment for this amazing and critically endangered species.”

The next two phases of A Wilder Vision are the opening of Hunters of Africa & Asia Predators, which will house lions, tigers and zebras and is due launch in spring 2023; and Forests and Jungles, which will introduce okapi to the zoo and is set to be completed by 2025.

“We love to make everything beautiful and evocative of where these animals live in the world, so people get an idea of what these countries are like,” says Bass.

CONSERVATION AND EDUCATION
Conservation is a major focus. “We’re involved in conservation projects in more than 30 countries around the world,” says Bass. The zoo is a world leader in elephant conservation, and established independent non profit organisation the Elephant Foundation in 1998; it is also a founding member of the International Rhino Foundation (IRF).

Bass and the team are also involved in conservation efforts closer to home. “I’m very proud of the zoo’s efforts in saving our Texas wildlife, notably the Texas horned lizard,” says Bass. “After watching this beloved native reptile’s numbers rapidly decline, we were the first zoo to successfully breed, hatch and release these animals into the wild. To date, our herpetology team has successfully introduced more than 800 hatchlings since 2011.”

For Bass, education is key to protecting wildlife and animals. “Although there have been failures in the past, man has been and must be a catalyst for positive change,” she says. “We believe that we’re accountable for the survival of wild things and wild places and that through responsible and wise stewardship, man can forge a working partnership with his environment.

“What if future generations don’t have the understanding or the interest to conserve and manage the birthright they’ve been given? It’s essential that the guiding principles of this message is taught to our children and grandchildren.”

To this end, Fort Worth Zoo offers conservation expeditions for university students, veterinary externship opportunities, internship and residency programmes, postdoctoral research opportunities and mentorship. For younger children, there is an onsite preschool programme, home school classes and virtual programming, and around 65,000 students visit annually on field trips.

“We’ve outgrown our current education centre with more than 400 children on the waitlist each year, so we’re building an additional Exploration and Learning Center to accommodate more children and classes,” says Bass. “Texas Nature Traders (TNT) is a formalised programme, created here at the zoo, that encourages children to explore the outdoors, learn about their environment and collect treasures from nature.

“We’re not simply a piece of land with beautiful animals and habitats; we’re an idea, a philosophy, and a vision that permeates throughout the zoo in all of our messaging and educational concepts.

Ramona Bass – What I’ve learned

“It’s important to me that we don’t sink large dollars into non-animal related projects at the zoo. For example, our office is a double-wide trailer, we’re not out there building $7m entrances either.”

“Be persistent. Don’t take no for an answer.”

“Be sure to surround yourself with the best and brightest people that you can find.”

“You have to think outside the box. Don’t think about the easy way, think about the right way.”

A WILDER VISION

In 2016, Fort Worth Zoo announced A Wilder Vision, a $130m capital campaign that includes new habitat space, renovated habitats, special events space, multiple dining areas and new ways to observe, interact with and learn about animals.

Divided into four stages – African Savanna, Elephant Springs, Asian Predators & Hunters of Africa and Forests & Jungles – the plan encompasses not only a mission for conserving the animal kingdom but also for educating and motivating future leaders.

The African Savanna opened to the public in the spring of 2018 and imitates the natural ecosystem of east Africa, where diverse species roam freely together.

Elephant Springs opened to the public in April 2021. Almost tripling its original size, this updated habitat serves as the home of the zoo’s Asian elephant herd, which includes a three-generation family, and features the addition of multiple, expanded yards and varied habitats as well as a 400,000 gallon river.

Other areas will be completed over the next three years and will change the way visitors explore the zoo and interact with the animals. Reimagined and modernised habitats will change the physical landscape of the zoo, allowing guests to wind through shaded trails during their visit. It will also become home to new species, including wild dogs, African leopards, clouded leopards and okapi.

The final two phases of the masterplan are Asian Predators & Hunters of Africa, due to open in spring 2023, and Forests & Jungles, predicted to open in 2025.

Credit: Photo: Fort Worth Zoo
Elephant Springs won a Thea Award for Outstanding Achievement in 2022 Credit: Photo: Fort Worth Zoo
The Museum of Living Art heptarium opened in 2010 and won several awards Credit: Photo: Fort Worth Zoo
Approximately 65,000 children visit Fort Worth Zoo on field trips each year Credit: Photo: Fort Worth Zoo
Credit: Photo: Fort Worth Zoo
Educating young people about conservation is a key part of the zoo’s mission Credit: Photo: Fort Worth Zoo
Fort Worth Zoo breeds, hatches and releases Texas horned lizards into the wild Credit: Photo: Fort Worth Zoo
Ramona Bass with FWZ executive director Mike Fouraker on a site visit Credit: Photo: Fort Worth Zoo
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Jobs    News   Products   Magazine
Interview
Ramona Bass

This year, Fort Worth Zoo’s new Elephant Springs habitat was awarded a Thea Award for Outstanding Achievement – a sign of how far the zoo has come since co-chair Ramona Bass first visited in the 1980s and decided something needed to be done. Magali Robathan finds out how she turned it around


When Ramona Bass first visited Forth Worth Zoo on a date in 1983, it was a depressing place. “What I found was a very disturbing, old time zoo,” she tells me. “Animals in cramped, concrete enclosures with chain link fences. I was frankly horrified.”

Lifelong animal lover Ramona Bass turned to her then fiance, now husband – businessman and philanthropist Lee Bass – and told him what she thought of the place, and he said, “Why don’t you do something about it?”

And so she did.

“I’m not sure he knew what he was getting into,” she says with a laugh. “It became my passion and my purpose.”

Over the next four decades, Bass and her team transformed the zoo, opening 18 new permanent habitats and support facilities, releasing “countless” animals back into the wild, welcoming 30 million visitors and raising hundreds of millions of dollars.

Today, Fort Worth Zoo is one of the US’s best loved zoos and a key player in conservation efforts worldwide, supporting projects in more than 30 countries. This year, it won a coveted Thea Award for Outstanding Achievement for its new Elephant Springs habitat, which is part of a $130m masterplan vision to further improve animal habitats across the zoo. It also plays a key role in conservation education, partnering with universities, offering research opportunities and internships and providing a wide range of learning opportunities for children.

“The whole thing just started with me wanting to make things a bit better for the animals,” Bass tells me. “It grew to be a much more complex educational and conservation behemoth. Now look what it has turned into!”

EARLY DAYS
Once Bass had committed to the project, she started by recruiting local people to the cause and re-establishing the effectively defunct Fort Worth Zoological Association (FWZA) with a new board of directors and executive committee.

The zoo, which opened in 1909 with one lion, two bear cubs, an alligator, a coyote, a peacock and some rabbits, was owned by the City of Fort Worth and had suffered for years from decreasing support and funding. Bass and the team set about trying to convince the city to set up a public-private partnership, with the city retaining ownership and the FWZA in complete control of fundraising and the management of the zoo.

“We realised we weren’t going to be able to do what we wanted to do with a publicly run institution,” says Bass. “There was too much red tape; too much politics.”

Persuading the city to accept their proposal wasn’t easy though. “It was a battle,” Bass admits. “They were wary, but I can understand that. We were young, I came out of nowhere – people were asking, Who is this girl who thinks she can run our zoo? We had to build up trust, but we won them over in the end.”

FWZA assumed complete management of the zoo in 1991 and fundraising began in earnest – since the privatisation, more than $300m has been raised to improve conditions and update the zoo. I ask Bass how much of a challenge fundraising has been.

“I am like the ever-ready battery – I never quit,” she says, and after spending just a short time in her company, I can see how she would be hard to say no to.

“In the beginning it was tougher, but our record began to speak for itself,” she adds. “People in Fort Worth realised we were serious about our mission and what a treasure the zoo had become and how we got here. Now they don’t try to run away from me anymore – well, maybe a few!”

Bass’s perseverance and passion for improving conditions for the animals began to pay off – the first big project was an overhaul of Texas Wild, a $40m, eight acre exhibit celebrating the ecological diversity of Texas and its wildlife, which opened in 2001.

Next was the Museum of Living Art (MOLA) – an inspired name for the zoos new heptarium. Designed by architects Gideon Toal and opened in 2010 it marked a move away from traditional zoo buildings, with its dramatic architectural shell housing a range of habitats including tropical forests, deserts and swamps. Large windows display the animal exhibits as though they are living pieces of art and allow visitors to get up close to amphibian and reptile species including snakes, lizards, crocodilia, komodo dragons, lizards, tortoises and frogs.

“We wanted to change the perceptions of the way people see these ‘creepy, crawly creatures’,” says Bass, of the inspiration behind MOLA. “They’re beautiful animals that make contributions to their ecosystems and they should be observed in beautiful habitats, in a worthy space to help foster an appreciation.”

A WILDER VISION
For Ramona and the team, the big focus now is on A Wilder Vision, an ambitious $130m masterplan that includes renovated habitats and 10 acres of new exhibit space.

“In our ever-urbanizing world there is a worrisome disconnect between people and nature,” says Bass. “We must explore solutions that mutually benefit man and animal, and further man’s proactive role in the survival of these magnificent creatures. A Wilder Vision encompasses not only a mission for conserving the animal kingdom, but also for educating and motivating future leaders.”

Planning started in 2011; since then Bass and FWZA board president Ardon Moore have put together a team of designers and architects to bring the vision to life, and they are now halfway through the four phase plan. The first exhibit, African Savanna, opened in 2018 – designed by Halbach-Dietz Architects, it aims to immerse visitors in the animals’ environment, offering several panoramic views of species including giraffes, springboks, ostriches, hippos and antelope sharing a habitat.

“To be able to put all of the wildlife together was wonderful,” says Bass. “The hippos in particular needed a new place so badly – I used to walk past them and say, ‘Girls, soon, I promise. I’ll get you a new place’.”

In Elephant Springs, opened in 2021, three generations of Asian elephants roam among interconnected yards and watering holes and a 400,000 gallon river, while greater one horned rhino explore neighbouring habitats. Earlier this year, Elephant Springs won a Thea Award for Outstanding Achievement from the Themed Entertainment Association (TEA) – the only zoo to receive the award.

“We knew we were creating something special with Elephant Springs – both for our beloved herd and our guests,” says Bass. “We’re incredibly proud to be recognised for creating a space that offers a highly immersive guest experience, but more importantly provides a natural, lush and enriching environment for this amazing and critically endangered species.”

The next two phases of A Wilder Vision are the opening of Hunters of Africa & Asia Predators, which will house lions, tigers and zebras and is due launch in spring 2023; and Forests and Jungles, which will introduce okapi to the zoo and is set to be completed by 2025.

“We love to make everything beautiful and evocative of where these animals live in the world, so people get an idea of what these countries are like,” says Bass.

CONSERVATION AND EDUCATION
Conservation is a major focus. “We’re involved in conservation projects in more than 30 countries around the world,” says Bass. The zoo is a world leader in elephant conservation, and established independent non profit organisation the Elephant Foundation in 1998; it is also a founding member of the International Rhino Foundation (IRF).

Bass and the team are also involved in conservation efforts closer to home. “I’m very proud of the zoo’s efforts in saving our Texas wildlife, notably the Texas horned lizard,” says Bass. “After watching this beloved native reptile’s numbers rapidly decline, we were the first zoo to successfully breed, hatch and release these animals into the wild. To date, our herpetology team has successfully introduced more than 800 hatchlings since 2011.”

For Bass, education is key to protecting wildlife and animals. “Although there have been failures in the past, man has been and must be a catalyst for positive change,” she says. “We believe that we’re accountable for the survival of wild things and wild places and that through responsible and wise stewardship, man can forge a working partnership with his environment.

“What if future generations don’t have the understanding or the interest to conserve and manage the birthright they’ve been given? It’s essential that the guiding principles of this message is taught to our children and grandchildren.”

To this end, Fort Worth Zoo offers conservation expeditions for university students, veterinary externship opportunities, internship and residency programmes, postdoctoral research opportunities and mentorship. For younger children, there is an onsite preschool programme, home school classes and virtual programming, and around 65,000 students visit annually on field trips.

“We’ve outgrown our current education centre with more than 400 children on the waitlist each year, so we’re building an additional Exploration and Learning Center to accommodate more children and classes,” says Bass. “Texas Nature Traders (TNT) is a formalised programme, created here at the zoo, that encourages children to explore the outdoors, learn about their environment and collect treasures from nature.

“We’re not simply a piece of land with beautiful animals and habitats; we’re an idea, a philosophy, and a vision that permeates throughout the zoo in all of our messaging and educational concepts.

Ramona Bass – What I’ve learned

“It’s important to me that we don’t sink large dollars into non-animal related projects at the zoo. For example, our office is a double-wide trailer, we’re not out there building $7m entrances either.”

“Be persistent. Don’t take no for an answer.”

“Be sure to surround yourself with the best and brightest people that you can find.”

“You have to think outside the box. Don’t think about the easy way, think about the right way.”

A WILDER VISION

In 2016, Fort Worth Zoo announced A Wilder Vision, a $130m capital campaign that includes new habitat space, renovated habitats, special events space, multiple dining areas and new ways to observe, interact with and learn about animals.

Divided into four stages – African Savanna, Elephant Springs, Asian Predators & Hunters of Africa and Forests & Jungles – the plan encompasses not only a mission for conserving the animal kingdom but also for educating and motivating future leaders.

The African Savanna opened to the public in the spring of 2018 and imitates the natural ecosystem of east Africa, where diverse species roam freely together.

Elephant Springs opened to the public in April 2021. Almost tripling its original size, this updated habitat serves as the home of the zoo’s Asian elephant herd, which includes a three-generation family, and features the addition of multiple, expanded yards and varied habitats as well as a 400,000 gallon river.

Other areas will be completed over the next three years and will change the way visitors explore the zoo and interact with the animals. Reimagined and modernised habitats will change the physical landscape of the zoo, allowing guests to wind through shaded trails during their visit. It will also become home to new species, including wild dogs, African leopards, clouded leopards and okapi.

The final two phases of the masterplan are Asian Predators & Hunters of Africa, due to open in spring 2023, and Forests & Jungles, predicted to open in 2025.

Credit: Photo: Fort Worth Zoo
Elephant Springs won a Thea Award for Outstanding Achievement in 2022 Credit: Photo: Fort Worth Zoo
The Museum of Living Art heptarium opened in 2010 and won several awards Credit: Photo: Fort Worth Zoo
Approximately 65,000 children visit Fort Worth Zoo on field trips each year Credit: Photo: Fort Worth Zoo
Credit: Photo: Fort Worth Zoo
Educating young people about conservation is a key part of the zoo’s mission Credit: Photo: Fort Worth Zoo
Fort Worth Zoo breeds, hatches and releases Texas horned lizards into the wild Credit: Photo: Fort Worth Zoo
Ramona Bass with FWZ executive director Mike Fouraker on a site visit Credit: Photo: Fort Worth Zoo
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CATALOGUE GALLERY
+ More catalogues  
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+ More directory  
DIARY

 

01-07 Dec 2022

World Leisure Congress 2022

tbc, Dunedin, New Zealand
05-07 Dec 2022

East Cape Futures

Hotel Palmas de Cortez, Los Barriles, Mexico
+ More diary  
 


ADVERTISE . CONTACT US

Leisure Media
Tel: +44 (0)1462 431385

©Cybertrek 2022

ABOUT LEISURE MEDIA
LEISURE MEDIA MAGAZINES
LEISURE MEDIA HANDBOOKS
LEISURE MEDIA WEBSITES
LEISURE MEDIA PRODUCT SEARCH
ATTRACTIONS MANAGEMENT NEWS
ATTRACTIONS HANDBOOK
PRINT SUBSCRIPTIONS
FREE DIGITAL SUBSCRIPTIONS