As the Mill Mountain Zoo marks its 65th anniversary, its leaders say they’re hopeful about the zoo’s future following both successes and struggles.
In September, the zoo lost its accreditation amid financial instability. Two months later, the executive director was replaced with two new co-directors.
“It’s a good place, it’s very family-oriented, and I think they have some good programs,” said Nick Prout, a visitor to the zoo.
“We were just looking for something different to do for the 4th,” said Tiffany Watlington, another visitor to the zoo on Tuesday.
It’s a major milestone for the zoo, which has been showcasing animals and educating visitors since 1952.
“We definitely have had our ups and downs, we’ve had financial worries, we had our accreditation concern,” said Robin Lentz, co-director of the zoo.
The zoo is taking a new direction, Lentz said. Instead of solely exotic animals, the zoo is also adding creatures found in Virginia’s wildlife, which includes new raccoon and bald eagle exhibits that are in the works.
“We really believe that it’s where zoos need to go,” Lentz explained. “They need to reconnect people to their backyards and to the forests that they drive through everyday.”
Finances have been more stable than they have been in years, thanks to more visitors, special events and support from stakeholders, according to co-director Bill Baker.
Lentz said she feels hopeful about the future but believes the zoo cannot reach the next 65 years by itself.
“We have to have our community behind us,” she said. “We have to have our community leaders behind us. We have to have our community government behind us.”
The zoo has not been reaccredited since losing its accreditation last year, Lentz said. Leaders of the zoo want to accomplish other goals first to get the zoo back on track, she added, and then reapply for accreditation status.
Zoo leaders also want to reconnect with the community, Lentz said, volunteering by helping out with river cleanups and establishing community pollinator gardens.