HATTIESBURG, Miss. (WHLT) – What began as a park and lost animal sanctuary in the early 20th century is today the bustling Hattiesburg Zoo attraction that welcomes 230,000 guests each year.

In 1908, Meridian businessman John Kamper donated 40 acres of his land in Hattiesburg to the city to be used as a park for children on the outskirts of town. Kamper Park even had its own trolly stop for families to bring their children to play.

Whenever the city faced severe storms, neighbors would find displaced animals like squirrels and turtles. Those displaced animals would be brought to Kamper Park. Eventually, this led to the idea of a zoo.

On Easter Sunday in 1950, the Hattiesburg Zoo opened for the first time on 12 acres of the park. Guests could visit mostly native animals, but there was a lion housed at the zoo, as well.

Despite its popularity today, the zoo wasn’t always successful. Hattiesburg Convention Commission (HCC) Executive Director Rick Tayor said by 2009, the zoo was costing the city over $1 million each year and wasn’t producing enough revenue. That’s when city leaders asked the convention commission to step in.

In 2010, Taylor said the HCC took over zoo management with a $1 million yearly subsidy from the city. Eventually the subsidy wasn’t needed anymore, and in 2017, the zoo started seeing a profit. Today, the zoo is one of only 11% of zoos worldwide that doesn’t rely on government subsidies.

Taylor said the zoo began to see a profit after the HCC began targeting a new market. Instead of targeting only families and kids, the commission began targeting young adults who may have forgotten about their childhood zoo. The zoo started hosting fun, young adult-centered events like “Rum Under the Sun” and “ZooStock,” which proved successful. Taylor also credits school field trips and the public for the zoo’s success.

“The public has really wrapped its arms around the zoo,” he said.

Despite the zoo’s success thus far, the HCC isn’t finished. There’s more in its future. Taylor said the HCC is looking into more additions to the zoo. Aside from a highly anticipated waterpark, he said the HCC may also design a new alligator exhibit, put in a pool for the flamingos and build a new educational center and ticketing area. Additionally, he said he’s excited about the many animal births happening at the zoo and how that can impact preservation efforts.

Today, the Hattiesburg Zoo is home to more than 100 species of animals and offers multiple adventurous activities and learning opportunities to guests. The zoo’s mission is to help guests better understand the importance of conservation and animal care.

Learn more about the zoo’s animals, donate or plan your visit at the zoo’s website.