Jackson Zoo reopens on limited basis after months of delays, awaits USDA inspection

Parks and Rec still managing zoo despite council's approval of management firm 18 months ago

Jackson Zoo gets ready to reopen

JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - As the Jackson Zoo gets ready to welcome visitors back for the first time Saturday, city leaders remain confident they will be able to secure an exhibitor license from the U.S. Department of Agriculture following an inspection of the zoo’s facilities next month.

Parks and Recreation Director Ison Harris said the lack of a Class C license by ZoOceanarium, the company approved more than 18 months ago by the Jackson City Council to run the zoo, was the final piece of the puzzle needed to move forward with a contract, which will also have to be approved by the council.

The zoo had been closed temporarily by order of the city council ten months ago to allow for mandatory infrastructure repairs and a transition of power between the now-defunct Jackson Zoological Society, which managed the zoo for decades, and ZoOceanarium.

“When we went through the process, we actually went through a pre-inspection. She went through the details on what needs to be fixed. Some were big items, things that would be visual, and some were very small,” Harris said.

Initially, the closure had been expected to last no more than six months.

Harris cited the pandemic and historic flooding of the Pearl River months ago as contributing factors to the four-month delay.

Saturday’s reopening -- which the city calls a “soft opening” -- will come with an attendance cap and social distancing restrictions.

Masks, still required statewide, are especially important in the zoo because Interim Zoo Director Dave Wetzel said COVID-19 could also be transmitted to the facility’s animals.

Wetzel told reporters Friday that new fences now accompany the rhinoceros and emu exhibits to protect guests and animals.

In all, nearly $300,000 has gone toward infrastructure improvements, officials said.

“A lot of [the improvements,] you’re not going to actually see so much, but it was all designed to make sure the city can get the USDA license when the USDA starts inspections again,” Wetzel said, citing the pandemic as the main reason the inspection had not yet taken place.

Crews also fixed water feature in the rhinoceros enclosure and cleared thirty trees from the property, Wetzel said.

Public Works Interim Director Charles Williams also confirmed repaving and resurfacing work on West Capitol Street will begin in early fall, improving aesthetics for those who travel from Interstate 220 to the zoo.

Initially, Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba said ZoOceanarium was pursuing an exhibitor license.

Then in June, he told 3 On Your Side that the city and the management company both wanted to secure a license.

Harris clarified the city’s position on Friday when he said only the city would be applying for the license, adding ZoOceanarium to it afterward.

That way, Harris said, if the city ever ended up going with a different management firm, it wouldn’t have to go through the licensing process again.

In the meantime, the zoo will open on weekends until Sept. 30, Harris said, with staffers using a reservation system to control capacity.

Friday’s limited number of guests drew excitement from many of the zoo’s animals, including Echo the Tiger, who roared repeatedly as people walked the paths.

“I cannot tell you how excited we are to have people here. You heard our flamingos every once in a while,” Wetzel said.

Almost as if on cue, the birds began getting louder, too, gathering closer to the podium.

“They’re discussing what’s going on with the masks. We appreciate you wearing them so they don’t get COVID,” Wetzel said.

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