Photo Gallery | Memphis Zoo’s Cat Country exhibit hits 20 year mark
The Memphis Zoo's Cat Country exhibit has come a long way as they celebrated 20 years in April – but making the exhibit a reality took nearly a century.
Dating back to 1906, Park commissioner Colonel Robert Galloway needed a place to put a lion after Barnum & Bailey Circus donated one to their own to the Memphis community.
The park commission granted a small sum to begin the then Overton Park Zoo, and with the help of a fundraiser the zoo's first building emerged.
Now known as the inner-zoo restaurant, the Carnivora Building housed a male Barbary lion, a female Barbary lion, a female Bengal tiger, two Mexican tigers, two African leopards, and two pumas in 1909. Although the carnivore facility had many inhabitants at this time; it was already of interest to provide enclosures for the animals where they would be able to move around more freely.
Many famous lions came through the zoo in the early days, perhaps even the iconic MGM Lion, according to Memphis Communications specialist Laura Doty.
"N.J. Melroy, Superintendent of the Zoo during this time, was not one to let the truth get in the way of a good story," Doty wrote in a zoo timeline commemorating Cat Country's anniversary. "A carnival man, Melroy knew how to attract people. He created an urban legend which states that one of the Memphis Zoo's lions was the original 'Leo the Lion' of MGM fame."
On a local scale of well-known cats, TOM the Tiger of Memphis State University lived at the zoo from 1972 to nearly when the Cat Country exhibit opened in 1993. TOM was a popular figure with Zoo guests and was a prominent figure in the campaign to build Cat Country.
In the 1980s, fundraising began. More than a decade later, animals began arriving at the Memphis zoo in preparation for the opening day of Cat County.
"'Firecracker', the only male African lion on exhibit at the Memphis Zoo in almost two decades, was moved into the new exhibit with the rest of the animals," said Doty recalling the start of the exhibit. "He had never felt grass under his feet."
Not much has changed since the world-class exhibit opened in 1993. Zoo officials said The Commercial Appeal Cat Country was the first step in the organization's more than $77 million of expansion and renovation.
"The exhibit has really held up well," said Memphis Zoo CEO Chuck Brady. "It's still as exciting as it was when we first opened it. We've changed some of the animals out, but most of the original species are still here. And it's a tribute to the design work and the effort that went into building it."
See the full video about Cat Country hitting 20 years here. The celebration continued Wednesday as Cat Country received donations for their achievements from Fred's Super Dollar.