In 1972, as a 19-year-old who knew he liked animals, I soon found out there was a lot more to taking care of a zoo full of exotic animals than I ever imagined. Floyd Houser, the owner of Housers Grove and Zoo, fired the couple working there at the time, and hired me; the learning curve became more of a mountain. After settling into a workable routine and learning more and more about the animals I cared for, I realized that I had not only found the career I had been looking for, but a passion. Roughly 10 years later, following much demolition, new construction, and more pens and cages than exhibits, I knew the goal of a modern zoo might forever elude me. The answer would require more resources and a zoological society appeared to be the answer. Shirley Pope and I got together and persuaded FLORIDA TODAY to write an article with our plan. Our first meeting at Mel-Hi was standing-room only, and after incorporating and getting our tax exempt status thanks to Jim Beadle, we were off and running. I went to Mr. Houser, who agreed to donate the animal collection to the newly formed ECZS, East Coast Zoological Society of Florida, and he leased us the property for $1 a year. We took over operations at the now called Brevard Zoological Park, while searching for a donated piece of property to build a new modern zoo on. Following the death of Mr. Houser, and the subsequent sale of the property, we were forced to close the zoo and find homes for the animals. Both physically and emotionally, this turned out to be the toughest endeavor I ever had to face. With no prospects for land, the board discouraged and the animals gone, I again thought it wasn't going to happen. Again, FLORIDA TODAY saved the day. An article appeared in the paper about a developer named Jim Swann, whose philosophy was to leave the trees when working with a site as opposed to clearing everything. This jumped out at me and I knew he was the person who could make my dream a reality. After finding out where he lived, I asked him if he would help me build a zoo. He said, No, go away. Another year went by with no progress and I tried again; he said he was just too busy. The third time, Jim said, Let me see what you got. He committed to helping, and got the Duda family to donate the most gorgeous, perfectly located piece of property in Brevard County. It was at this point that I found out there was a lot more to designing, raising money for, and building a modern zoo than I ever imagined, but I wouldn't trade the experience or the career for anything.
Written by Dave Mannes for Florida Today, Man with a dream