Despite struggles during the pandemic, the Hattiesburg Zoo has lots of new and exciting things in store for city residents and animal lovers alike.
The biggest of these changes, literally and metaphorically, is the Hattiesburg Zoo’s latest expansion. The construction of this new area has been visible from Hardy Street for two years now and is in its final development stages. Various zoo staff members hope to see it open sometime in Spring 2021.
This expansion adds roughly 25% to the zoo’s total square footage in the northwest quadrant. New, exotic animals like giraffes, hyenas and different kinds of primates will call the expansion home, with more and more to be added. These new editions will further expand the 200+ different species available at the Hattiesburg Zoo, as well as add a few new countries to the mix. In the building which will house the giraffes, staff members will be adding 21 flags in honor of the countries where giraffes originate from.
A less noticeable, but still very significant, change comes with the Zoo’s hours. The Hattiesburg Zoo had reduced its hours significantly over the past year because of the pandemic, but recently announced they would return to normal operations within the next few days. Starting March 1, the Hattiesburg Zoo will be open Tuesday through Sunday from 10 am to 4 pm.
The news gives hope to community residents that the town is once again returning to normal despite lingering COVID-19 cases. When the initial stay at home orders went into effect nationwide, many beloved, tourist-friendly operations had to shut down and/or reduce their hours. But agencies like the Hattiesburg Convention Commission have helped keep community favorites like the Pocket Museum, the Saenger Theater and the Hattiesburg Zoo open and operational even through the worst of the pandemic.
Rick Taylor, the Executive Director of the Hattiesburg Convention Commission, works closely with these attractions in hopes of a better community.
“We, at the Hattiesburg Convention Commission, are an attraction management agency, just like with The Pocket Museum and Saenger Theater,” said Taylor. “Our job is to operate and manage these areas for the economic and social aspect of the community for a good quality of life to the residents.”
Taylor has also been working with the Hattiesburg Zoo in order to keep its construction on schedule. He hopes that this new addition will further bolster the zoo economically and increase tourism in the area.
“The zoo has been growing over the past number of years and this expansion continues that growth,” Taylor said. “With the 25% added, the zoo will now be able host larger events because of the large pavilion.”
Popular annual events like Zoo Boo, Lights of the Wild and the Renaissance Festival bring in a large crowd. Taylor estimated that the Hattiesburg Zoo hosts roughly 200,000 guests a year. After this construction is complete, there is a new covered pavilion that guests can visit. During regular park hours, the pavilion will contain benches and chairs for guests to relax, as well as add more social distancing and gathering space.
“The new area cost about 3.4 million dollars to build,” Taylor said. “The goal is that with this investment we will increase revenue and profit to keep growing and expanding.”
While the Zoo seems to be thriving now, it was not always this way. Its success nowadays both locally and nationally is a far cry from its rocky start.
“It’s very unusual for a city our size to have a zoo,” Taylor said. “The cost and the requirements have changed and lots of cities our size have had to discontinue their zoo. Some years ago, the Hattiesburg Convention Commission assisted the city by helping to grow the zoo economically. […] The zoo now sustains itself and does not require government funding.”
With the new expansion and old hours back in action, Taylor believes the Hattiesburg Zoo will bring in even more fans because of its family friendly, educational and fun environment.
“What we do is not only promote conservation but also education,” Taylor notes. “Most people who visit the zoo will never be able to visit Africa and this gives them a glimpse into what animals can be found there.”
Not only will this new vicinity expand on the Asia and Africa themed location of the Zoo, but guests will also be able to visit a second restaurant called Ladah Cantina. The cantina will serve Americanized African food and treats to its visitors. Because of the Ladah Cantina’s location, guests will be able to watch the giraffes and hyenas behind glass screens. Some taller visitors might even be able to peak into the hyena habitat, as hyenas can’t jump and therefore require a much shorter fence to keep visitors safe.
One of the people behind developing Ladah Cantina, Guest Services Manager Demetric Kelly, is also a USM alumni and a previous Student Printz staff member. Kelly’s current job helps make sure that the customers are always happy.
“My job ranges from priority guest services to retail,” said Kelly. “I oversee retail and help choose all the items in our gift shop. I also oversee the daily operations like making sure that the zoo is ready for the public. I’m sort of our ‘guest zookeeper’.”
Kelly, as the “guest zookeeper”, does a lot to make sure that every little detail in the Hattiesburg Zoo adds to its enjoyability. Like many, he’s excited for the new expansion, and hopes people will take advantage of the space.
“Everything that I do my goal is to make sure that guests leave with something to remember and will hopefully bring them back here,” Kelly said. “I’m hoping to see our normal guests return to see something new, but I am also hoping that this will attract more visitors that haven’t had a chance to come yet.”
Kelly has seen a lot of great change at the zoo since he started working for the Hattiesburg Convention Commission, and wants it to continue for the betterment of the community.
“I’m hoping to educate adults and children alike who have never seen giraffes to promote education,” Kelly said. “The new cantina will bring new food and the pavilion [will allow space] for more events and weddings, which will be great to have. We’re hopeful to bring a lot of people to Hattiesburg and we are proud of this new exhibit.”
COVID-19 may have slowed down construction, but the spirits of the staff remain high. Giraffes are big animals that will bring big changes for Hattiesburg. No matter their interests, everyone can have something to be excited about when the latest Hattiesburg Zoo attraction opens its gates.
“Seeing these animals makes it matter whether you care if the Amazon rainforest burns down or not,” Taylor said. “If you don’t support efforts to reduce this cause and things like poaching, then these animals will be gone. That’s a big part in education and exposing these ideals to kids.”
Be sure to keep up with the latest Hattiesburg Zoo updates by following @HattiesburgZoo on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.