LUFKIN, TX (KTRE) - Fifty years ago a vision was born of a zoo situated on the northwest side of Lufkin.
That vision was first drawn out by Lufkin Industry Founder Walter Trout. The zoo is not slowing down and settling. The zoo has big plans for the future.
"We had our first master plan in 1997," said Zoo Director Gordon Henley. "We did the rhino, giraffe, and new hippo exhibit. We did our administration area and some new paths. The ultimate project in that master plan was a gorilla habitat. That exhibit will cost about $6 million. We have to raise $4 million of that and right now we are just at the half way point."
Henley said the zoo is looking strong for the future. In 2016, the zoo saw 149,425 smiling faces come through the front gates. The numbers beat 2015 by 17,815. The numbers are huge compared to 2014 when 121,403 visitors paid for admission.
"We were hoping we could get to 150,000 when we first saw where we were in November," Henley said. "Unfortunately we had some wet and cold days in December that slowed us down."
Henley said he believes the zoo is popular around the region because of the way it connects with animals not seen in the wild of the Pineywoods.
"I think we create a great environment to see the animals," Henley said. "Families can get together and enjoy each others company. People love animals. They like to see animals."
All zoos have to have a start and at Ellen Trout, it is not hard to see where its roots lie. Visitors entering the front gates get their first clue at the roots when they pass the concrete statue of Hippie the hippo.
"In late December 1965, a pick up truck pulled up outside of Lufkin Industries with a big box on it," Henley said. "Inside the box was a baby hippo, and along with it, was a Christmas card, and it said, 'Merry Christmas Walter. May all your troubles be big.' The hippo stayed here for a day or two and then was sent to Monroe, La. where it stayed until the zoo was ready to be opened in June of 1965."
Trout's granddaughter Barbara Corbett was in attendance. She cut the ribbon that let guest into the zoo that was names after her great grandmother.
"It was such a great day," Corbett said. "There was so much excitement, and it was so great to see the animals here."
Corbett is hoping the zoo brings generations of people the same joy she has.
"I would hope that my generation will be bringing their grandchildren and their grand children and it will continue to grow," Corbett said.
Since that June 1965 day, the zoo has expanded to over 700 reptiles, birds and mammals. With the gorilla habitat, the zoo is working on grant money to improve their reptile building and improve their off-site breeding area for the Louisiana pine snake. The zoo's expansion project includes eventually moving to the other side of Ellen Trout Lake with new free standing exhibits. It is part of a new 20-year master plan.
"I would like it to be a place to provide informal science education and wildlife and the conservation," Henley said.