El Paso Zoo Connects Urban West Texans to the Desert Ecosystem

By Andrew Stuart

Paul Simon put it together in 1967: “Something tells me it’s all happening at the zoo.”

The El Paso Zoo is one of the most popular attractions in Texas’ desert-mountain city. More than 300,000 people visit each year.

They see African lions, meerkats, Asian elephants, Malayan tigers. There’s the thrill of the exotic, and an initiation into the planet’s stunning diversity of life.

But among the zoo’s core aims is to connect visitors to the very ecosystem in which they live – and to protect that ecosystem’s most endangered creatures. Chihuahuan Desert programs are already central to the zoo’s mission, and in February 2018, the zoo started construction on an ambitious new Chihuahuan Desert Exhibit.

In 2012, El Paso voters approved $50 million in zoo funding over 10 years. Twelve million was earmarked for a new Chihuahuan Desert Exhibit.

Rick LoBello is the zoo’s education curator. He’s a Sul Ross State University grad, a former Big Bend National Park staffer and a veteran interpreter. He said zoos were once “living museums” – now, they’re “wildlife conservation centers.” And they play a critical role in connecting an increasingly urban populace with the natural world.

“One of the biggest problems with conservation around the world is the fact that most people around the planet are now living in urban areas, where they are disconnected,” LoBello said. “So zoos are playing a more significant role every year in helping people to see the importance of the habitats around the world and how they connect to their own survival. So it makes sense that we would want to have, as our signature project over the next 10 years, this Chihuahuan Desert Exhibit.”

The zoo currently showcases Chihuahuan Desert raptors. There’s a regular “Wings of the Desert” program, and, for younger visitors, an introduction to the desert’s plants and animals.

In the new exhibit, visitors will encounter rare and endangered desert creatures.

A “mountain” at the center will be home to mountain lions – and jaguars. Jaguars once prowled the Trans-Pecos, and they persist in Northern Mexico. They’ve been moving north, and may one day return to the wild here.

A “sotol grassland” will surround the mountain. Here, visitors will meet an Ice Age relic.

With an 18-inch carapace, the bolson tortoise is North America’s largest tortoise. It wasn’t known to science until 1959. Fewer than 10,000 survive in the wild, in Mexico’s Bolsón de Mapimí. Unlike other Ice Age “megafauna” – mammoths, ground sloths – the tortoise escaped extinction – barely.

A welcome center will house thick-billed parrots. These birds once flourished in West Texas pine forests. Now, they endure only in the mountains of Chihuahua.

For all these threatened creatures, the zoo serves as a “insurance policy,” LoBello said, a kind of “Noah’s Ark.”

Mexican gray wolves – lobos – were an apex predator of arid North America. By the late 70s, they were nearly extinct. In Texas, the last known wolf was killed south of Alpine in 1970.

Visitors see Mexican wolves at the zoo today. But the new project includes an expanded exhibit – and breeding area. Wolves are being reintroduced to the wild in Arizona, New Mexico and Mexico. In the future, wolf puppies from the zoo may be used in those efforts.

Smaller creatures will get their due – in an “abandoned ranch house,” that the wild has reclaimed.

“So when you walk in, you’ll see, ‘oh, someone used to live here,’” LoBello said, “and then you’ll look around and say, ‘Oh, the animals are taking over.’ So we’re going to have little small animals from the desert underneath mattresses, in the old refrigerator, maybe the bathtub – that kind of thing.”

Graphics will highlight where creatures exist in the wild. Zoo visitors can become advocates of habitat, LoBello said. Cities are politically dominant, and an urban population that values natural areas can make the difference in their preservation.

“Environmental education in cities is critical to the protection of Big Bend National Park,” LoBello said. “You can have a great environmental education in Marfa and Alpine, but if people in El Paso don’t understand the value of protecting wildlife habitat in parks, it might be a bigger struggle in the future.”

The Chihuahuan Desert Exhibit is slated to open in late 2019, and will encompass 92,000 square-feet – 20 percent of the zoo.