Columbia, SC — WHEN CITIZENS and leaders of Lexington and Richland counties embraced the notion of building a zoo more than four decades ago, they couldn’t have imagined that Riverbanks Zoo and Garden would become one of the largest attractions in the Southeast.
As the zoo celebrates its 40th anniversary today — it opened its gates on April 25, 1974 — it stands as one of the Midlands’ best examples of the success that can be achieved through regional cooperation. What began as a grassroots effort to build a small petting zoo ballooned into a world-class facility thanks to committed supporters, children and families in the community and, most important, the financial backing or Lexington and Richland county taxpayers.
The zoo was formed under the guidance of a seven-member Riverbanks Parks Commission created in 1969. John Mehrtens, a hard-charging and abrasive dreamer selected as the first executive director, is credited with setting the stage for transforming what was supposed to have been a petting zoo into a top-notch zoological park. Mr. Mehrtens was both a laudable visionary and a bit of a spendthrift, and under his watch, the modest $350,000 project ballooned to $6 million as he sought a grander facility than had been planned.
Financial and management concerns led to Mr. Mehrtens’ ouster and opened a door of opportunity for the only other director the zoo has known — Palmer “Satch” Krantz, a Columbian who had received a zoology degree from Clemson University.
Mr. Krantz practically grew up at Riverbanks. Fresh out of college, he had been at the zoo only two years when he chosen to run the still-new operation at age 26; he has run it for 38 of its 40 years, turning the fledgling facility into the premier attraction in the state.
The zoo’s outstanding exhibits and operation have generated overwhelming support from patrons. More than 1 million visitors flow through Riverbanks’ gates each year, and it has become the top ticketed tourist attraction in South Carolina and one of the largest mid-sized zoos in the country. It attracts more visitors than the Charleston Aquarium as well as zoos in large cities such as Atlanta, Dallas and Miami.
Quite frankly, not many communities can boast a zoo as impressive as Riverbanks. And there is no sign that the appeal will slip. Lexington and Richland counties, which continue to provide much-needed annual funding, also have taken steps to make sure Riverbanks remains among the top facilities in the country by financing a $32 million renovation campaign that is now in full swing. The construction includes a new and expanded entrance and a sea lion exhibit.
Unfortunately, even as Riverbanks prepared to celebrate its 40th anniversary, last month marked the death of the last remaining member of the zoo’s original animal collection — a Caribbean flamingo.
Although the animals are what make a zoo, they are sometimes taken for granted. This community has benefitted greatly from the presence of Happy the tiger, one of the zoo’s first residents, and the Caribbean flamingo. And it will benefit still from the many animals on exhibit today and those that will populate the zoo in the future.
We can only imagine the success in store for the next 40 years.