If you're spending a day at the Fort Worth Zoo, there is perhaps no better tour guide than Ramona Bass. She greets the animals like they're old friends. She calls the Asian elephants by name and recognizes them on sight.
"Well, Bluebonnet was the first one born here," she told NBC5 as she showed off the award-winning Elephant Springs where three generations of Asian elephants live as a herd would in the wild.
It's one of the success stories in Bass' work to raise millions to improve the zoo and make it one of the world's greatest.
It's a far cry from what she saw in the '80s when her then fiancé; Lee Bass took the San Antonio native to the zoo on a date.
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"We walked into zoo and it was very depressing," Bass said of that first visit. "It made me upset, and Lee said to me, 'Well, maybe you should do something about it.' I don't think at that point he knew what he was actually getting into. It has been my passion and my purpose for all those years."
The lifelong animal lover didn't like what she saw on that first visit, and the wheels toward a public-private partnership with the city started turning. The plan was to let the nonprofit For Worth Zoological Association manage the zoo with the city retaining ownership.
"It was a battle. People were fighting us. There was yelling and screaming at city council meetings, but finally I think the city realized it was to their benefit," Bass said. She understood the hesitancy to embrace the new relationship.
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"I was new to town. They didn't know me. For all they knew, I could be some silly socialite that just arrived in Fort Worth, right? And the idea of a private management contract of a city-owned entity, it was novel. And they weren't sure how it was going to work out. And they knew it was going to cost a lot of money to improve the zoo. And in the end, they gave us a shot. And here we are today, almost $300 million raised later."
The first project Bass took on was Texas Wild. The exhibit celebrates the Lone Star State and the wildlife found in its different regions. It opened in 2001 and remains one of her favorite places in the zoo. She's ready, though, to give it a major facelift.
She also oversaw the Museum of Living Art. MOLA, as its called, was built in 2010 to bring guests eye-to-eye with some of the most exotic and endangered species of amphibians and reptiles on the planet.
"I know a lot about mammals. I really didn't know a lot about reptiles and amphibians. So there was a lot of give and take with the keepers," Bass said.
A Wilder Vision is the next big thing for the zoo. It's the name of a $100 million master plan that will pay for new habitat space, renovated habitats, special events space, multiple dining areas, restrooms and most importantly, new ways to observe, interact with and learn about animals. Planning started in 2011. The fundraising campaign launched in 2016 and two years later, the first phase opened.
The African Savanna is a 10-acre exhibit where guests feed the giraffes, watch the hippos drift, float and swim through a lazy river, and see southern black rhinos. Phase two came in April 2021. Elephant Springs expands the habitat for the zoo's Asian elephants and greater one-horned rhino. Asian Predators and Hunters of Africa, the third phase of A Wilder Vision, comes in 2023 and will house lions, tigers and zebras.
"One of the things we're working on in here, is the zebras are so mean and aggressive, they were stomping on the hornbills and chasing the baby giraffes around and the only animal that will stand up to them is the ostrich." Bass said.
The final phase called Forest and Jungles will bring the okapi to the zoo. This relative of a giraffe is found only in the deepest parts of the Democratic republic of Congo rainforests.
Conservation is also a big focus of the last 30 years.
The zoo is the first to the Texas Horned Lizard in captivity.
It's released thousands of Houston toads.
It had the first-ever Texas kangaroo rat born under human care;
And, it works to protect and breed the endangered southern black rhino.
What started from that first trip to the zoo decades ago, has led to a passion and purpose bigger than Bass thought but she is quick to celebrate others who've done the work alongside her from the donors to the zoo staff.
"I have so many people helping me, and I just put my nose down and went for it. But now it's been 30 years of privatization and I feel proud of what we've all done together,” she said. "The ability to walk the walk helps me raise the money because I can say to people, ‘I'm giving, too, and so, you can come with me because I'm gonna take care of this and it's gonna be good’.”