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Established by the Springfield Park Board in 1922, Dickerson Park Zoo was initially developed with the help of WPA labor and funds in the 1930s. From then until the 1970s, very little development or support occurred, and by 1975, the zoo had become a run-down liability to the City of Springfield. The zoo was on the verge of being closed, but a commitment was made by the City and a newly formed support group now known as Friends of the Zoo to save the zoo. The next 10 years marked significant improvements and a repositioning of the zoo as a valuable cultural asset to the community. The Friends organization developed a membership base, launched education programs, and garnered support of donors for new projects and improvements. The City of Springfield committed budget dollars and instituted an admission fee to help offset expenses. The zoo, located on a beautiful tract of land with much potential, had been saved. Now it was time to plan an orderly approach to its future.
The revitalization of Dickerson Park Zoo coincided with philosophical changes being experienced by zoos nationwide, and a mission recognizing the objectives of recreation, education, conservation and research was adopted and used as a guidepost for charting the growth and purpose of the zoo. A master plan, adopted in 1985, visualized a new zoo, utilizing geographic themes and phased development addressing the mission objectives as guiding concepts. The zoo became involved in several Species Survival Plans, most notably Asian elephants, maned wolves and cheetahs, finding success with each endeavor. In-house and outreach education programs became valuable services offered and used by the community, and fun, family-oriented special events drew large numbers and gained additional support for the growing zoo. The growth of tourism in the region also contributed to increases in attendance and offered visitors to the community another attraction when visiting the Ozarks.
The zoo was accredited by theAmerican Zoo and Aquarium Association in 1986, and has been reaccredited in two subsequent reviews, most recently in 1996. With success comes expectations for additional services and exhibits, and the need for increased revenues for operation of the zoo. An update and revision of the master plan was completed in 1996, and efforts are underway to assure that funding, both private and public, is in place to enable the projects in the master plan to be accomplished by 2010. The zoo enjoys a positive place in the cultural fabric of the community, and all indications are that it will continue to be treasured as one of the city's crown jewels.