The Ellen Trout Zoo houses 1,000 animals and participates in Species Survival Plans for close to 50 different species of mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians. A divergent array of creatures ranging from Russell’s viper to DeBrazza’s monkey call the zoo home, and the facility welcomes approximately 150,000 visitors per year.
Accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums since 1983, the city-operated zoo has enjoyed exponential growth since its humble beginnings in 1965, when Lufkin’s Walter Trout received a 500-pound Christmas surprise.
“Late December 1965, just before Christmas, a truck pulled up outside Lufkin Foundry Machine Company with a big box on the back and a big Christmas card attached to it,” said zoo Executive Director Gordon Henley, Jr., “and when they opened the box and saw the hippo and the card, the card said, ‘Merry Christmas, Walter. May all your troubles be big.’ That was the catalyst that really made the zoo go into fruition.”
Hippie the Hippo, as it was named, would spend a year and a half in Monroe, Louisiana, while a hippo pen was constructed. From the initial seed of that first pen, the Ellen Trout Zoo, named for Walter’s mother, would steadily grow and, soon, neighbors of every species would move in to join Hippie.
“It was small to start with,” Henley said. “Other than the hippo, it was a lot of Texas animals, native animals, and it’s had slow but steady growth ever since. It’s never been unpopular. People have always come out here, and the community has made it what it is today.”
The community made the zoo what it is not just by visiting but eventually by coalescing into an official 501(c)(3) support organization, the Friends of Ellen Trout Zoo.
“The city of Lufkin owns and operates the zoo, and they have paid the salaries and utilities and supplies,” Henley explained. “When we do a growth spurt, then we would go to the city council to seek approval for new personnel and new supplies and things to support the growth, but we didn’t have any other way of income, and so we formed an organization called Friends of the Ellen Trout Zoo.”
Since its inception, Henley added, the Friends of Ellen Trout Zoo has made countless contributions to the zoo’s growth and development.
“The Friends of the Ellen Trout Zoo has had a major role in all major things that we have done: the construction of the large cat exhibits, the construction of our entrance area, the construction of our giraffe-rhino habitats, the construction of the first hippoquarium in the South, and a big role in the construction of our administration building and education center,” he said.
Ultimately, it was through the organization’s board of directors that the zoo was able to partner with Regions Bank.
“As the Friends of the Zoo developed, one of the board members was a Regions employee,” Henley said. “He was actually a senior trust advisor for Regions, so money that Friends of the Zoo has gotten over the years, from small amounts to what it is today, has been deposited and managed in Regions Bank.”
According to Regions Trust Advisor and Market Executive Hilary Walker, who serves the zoo’s board as financial advisor, it was a match made in heaven.
“Part of what makes Regions such a great fit with a community like Lufkin is their values are aligned,” said Walker. “People here believe in community, they give back to community, and so does Regions Bank. Having them as a client and a customer is a natural fit and it’s great for all of us. We understand their mission.”
The fruits of the partnership, she added, amount to nothing less than a world-class facility.
“You’ll see zoos in metropolitan places, but you won’t necessarily see a zoo in a rural part of the country,” Walker said. “You won’t see it in small towns, but because it’s here, that makes it even more special, and I’ve heard people from all over say, ‘I’ve been to your zoo. I like it better than the San Francisco Zoo. I like it better than a big city zoo. How did y’all do that?’ And a large part of it is just the generosity of the people that live here, giants of people who have given back. They see the benefit of it. They see how special it is.”
According to Gordon Henley, that special status is due in part to the role it plays in community education.
“We have a summer program called Zoo Safari, and a little bit later we added Junior Zookeeper to that, for older kids,” he said. “We have been providing hippo encounters to second graders for 40 years. We now have a state-of-the-art education center with two classrooms that will match any school classroom. We have a multipurpose room for larger audiences, and we reach out to many, many different school districts.”
Yet as important as the zoo’s educational contributions may be, its economic impact cannot be denied.
“Lufkin is very fortunate to have a zoo here,” said the city’s Director of Economic Development, Bob Samford. “It’s a great economic driver. We have tens of thousands of visitors every year who come and stay in our hotels and shop at our local stores. It has a budget of almost $2 million in the Lufkin City Council’s allocation every year, so it’s a huge driver of economic good will.”
From enriching Lufkin’s economy to enriching its future through education, the Ellen Trout Zoo offers an ever-increasing contribution to this small Texas community, thanks in no small measure to its Friends, both the human ones and the not-so-human.
“Our growth and expansion is brought in by this community, and this community supports the zoo,” Henley said. “We have a lot of media support. We have the citizenry support. We have support from the school districts. We have support from municipal government. We have a lot of things that help make our work easier and much more enjoyable so that we can provide the kind of facilities for people in Lufkin that other zoos have in major cities.”