Caldwell Zoo: Where the Wild Things Are

Caldwell Zoo
Caldwell Zoo

Tyler's zoo began simply enough in the late 1930s in the Caldwell backyard: a charming preschool petting zoo with leftover Easter bunnies‚ a squirrel or two‚ some ducks‚ a few exotic birds‚ an alligator at one time.

Then‚ as the story goes‚ in the early ’50s‚ Lottie Caldwell called her husband‚ D.K.‚ a civil engineer by trade‚ and told him to come home. There were 40 or 50 people in her backyard enjoying these animals. That was the straw that would have broken the camel’s back‚ had they had one of those.

So they packed up Peter Rabbit‚ Rocky and Donald and Daisy and moved them to what everyone knows now as Caldwell Zoo.

Today‚ the Tyler landmark – owned and operated by the Caldwell Foundation – attracts nearly 300‚000 people a year from a 200-mile radius to see 250 species of 1‚900 animals. In total‚ the zoo occupies 200 acres of land‚ 50 of which are developed for public access. Executive director Hayes Caldwell knows every square inch of it by heart.

“I basically grew up at the zoo‚” says the founders’ nephew. He spent summers there as early as 1963‚ taking his current position in 1976.

“As best I remember‚ it was just kind of a dream come true‚” he says. “I got to begin learning how to work with the animals‚ seeing visitors enjoy themselves‚ interacting with the public. It’s something that grabbed me right at the beginning.”

Now those visitors coming through the entry plaza find themselves in the middle of the zoo‚ which is divided into three regions: North America‚ South America and Africa. When they enter‚ they are in South America‚ where they will see animals like Chilean flamingos‚ squirrel monkeys‚ macaws and anteaters.

To the left‚ a pathway leads to the African area where the top of a hill overlooks an African plains exhibit housing elephants‚ lions‚ African antelope‚ giraffes and more. To the right of the South America area is North America with bison‚ Texas longhorns‚ white tail deer and other more familiar natives.

The the black-footed penguin exhibit is a visitor favorite.

“These are found on the coast of Africa‚” Caldwell says. “People love them.”

Hayes personally remembers being “grabbed” in 1963. And the zoo still has the same tight hold today‚ he says. “Walking through the zoo and seeing the excitement and joy on the faces of our visitors is the best part of the job.”

The nonprofit organization is accredited by the American Zoo and Aquarium Association‚ one of 215 similar accreditations in North America‚ according to Caldwell.

Caldwell Zoo is located at 2003 Martin Luther King Blvd. in Tyler, TX, and is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. from March through Labor Day, and 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Labor Day through February.