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New zoo CEO plans to keep improving West Tennessee’s No. 1 attraction

Published: Jun. 22, 2022 at 9:56 PM CDT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - Improvements at the Memphis Zoo over the last 30 years have it consistently ranked as one of America’s best on tripadvisor.com.

The new president and CEO of the Memphis Zoo, Matt Thompson, said he plans to keep zoo refinements coming so the number one attraction in West Tennessee can keep advancing.

Thompson said the Zoo’s Board will hire one of three architectural firms that specialize in zoo attractions to create a ten-year plan for an ever-improving experience for the zoo’s 1.1 million annual visitors.

“So there’s the African component, elephants and giraffes, that could use an upgrade for sure. Then there’s the entire west end after Cat Country. So there’s the aquarium, the birdhouse, and the aquarium that all need updating,” Thompson said.

The aquarium was one of the first air-conditioned buildings in Memphis when it opened in 1959.

Thompson said he’s dreaming of a creative update for the zoo’s home for fish and aquatic life.

“So we have to make a decision as a part of this process. Are we going to build a state-of-the-art aquarium, or is whatever we build going to have a strong aquatic component to it?” Thompson said.

The new CEO rose through the ranks from zookeeper 26 years ago to his appointment as the zoo’s new leader after Jim Dean retired on June 16.

Thompson told the Memphis Rotary luncheon on June 21 that the zoo might reimagine where it houses fish and aquatic life, snakes and reptiles and birds and move them all into an attraction with a rainforest feel.

“Birds flying, plants growing, waterfalls crashing, a lot of fish and that kind of thing. That too would be an incredible thing for the zoo. To me, it’s a kind of ultimate immersive experience because you walk in and smell the dirt and the plants. You feel the humidity from the water. It feels like you’re in that part of the world,” Thomson said.

Big on conservation, Thompson revealed to Rotary that the Zoo now owns a farm in Eads, Tennessee that may be used to help some species expand.

“Probably breeding and that kind of thing but it’s very promising for the future of the zoo and I have no doubt it will contribute to our success,” the new zoo leader said.

Thompson is committed to the compromise with the Overton Park Conservancy and the city of Memphis that’ll move Zoo maintenance to the current General Services compound and its entrance on East Parkway.

Once that happens, Thompson said parking on the greensward will end forever.

Thompson said zoo vehicles will use city streets and not the internal roadways frequented by runners, walkers, cyclists, and families enjoying Overton Park.

In addition, Thompson said the Zoo will return 17 acres of the Old Forest State Natural Area to the Overton Park Conservancy that had been reserved for possible zoo expansion in previous administrations.

Thompson says the fence now impeding public access to the 17 acres will be removed and a new fence constructed that will enclose the southern edge of the zoo’s 74-acre footprint.

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