Riverbanks Zoo and Garden is one of the most successful mid-sized zoos in the United States. Since opening in April 1974, Riverbanks has won a number of awards for exhibit design, breeding programs and marketing efforts. Riverbanks attracts more than 850,000 visitors each year and has a non-profit support society of more than 30,000 memberships – amazing statistics for a zoo located in a city with a metropolitan population of less than 700,000.
In the early 1960s, a group of local businessmen initiated the concept of a small community zoo. Known as the Columbia Zoo, the proposed facility was designed exclusively as a children’s zoo with a nursery rhyme theme. Funding restraints and other problems doomed the initial effort, but the concept of a zoo for the Midlands of South Carolina persisted.
In 1969 the South Carolina General Assembly created the Rich-Lex Riverbanks Park Special Purpose District, the legal and governing authority for what was to ultimately become Riverbanks Zoo and Garden. The seven-member Riverbanks Park Commission was established as the district’s governing authority.
By creating Riverbanks as a Special Purpose District, the state legislature significantly expanded the Zoo’s support base. Richland and Lexington counties joined the city of Columbia as full partners in the burgeoning Riverbanks project. Each of the three political entities appointed two members to the Commission, with the seventh appointed at-large. Approximately 100 acres of land on both sides of the Lower Saluda River and just outside of the city proper were leased to the commission by South Carolina Electric and Gas (SCE&G) for 99 years at $1.00 per year.
Following five years of planning and construction, Riverbanks finally opened to the public on April 25, 1974. Notable features of the original Zoo design were the mountainous, moated exhibits for cats and bears (these remain a part of the Zoo's landscape today and can be seen immediately upon entering the parking area). Other major exhibits included two buildings with a total of 21 individual exhibits for small mammals and a moated enclosure for giraffes and white rhinos. Perhaps the most striking architectural feature of the new Zoo was the 22,000-square-foot Ecosystem Birdhouse. Located in the heart of the Zoo, this building housed hundreds of birds in indoor and outdoor exhibits.
Early on, Zoo leaders and local government officials realized that Riverbanks would not be a self-supporting operation as originally intended. During the first two years of operation, the Zoo suffered financially as several attempts to secure adequate operating support failed. In the summer of 1976, Palmer “Satch” Krantz was hired as executive director. That decision, combined with a change in the make-up and philosophy of the commission, led to a reassessment of the Zoo and its position in the community.
Armed with a renewed sense of purpose and spirit, the Zoo began to establish itself as a valuable community asset. In the fall of 1976 the Riverbanks Zoological Society was formed, giving citizens their first opportunity to actively show their support. Within three years several thousand people had joined the Society, demonstrating to local government leaders that there was indeed strong grassroots support for the Zoo. Knowing they had the support of the community, local government leaders voted to begin funding the Zoo as a millage agency in 1980, effectively ending the financial crisis.
Several major accomplishments marked the early 1980s. Full-time staff positions in education, veterinary medicine and marketing were established. The Society began using direct mail to sell memberships with astonishing results. In 1982 Riverbanks received the prestigious Edward H. Bean Award from the American Zoo and Aquarium Association (AZA) for its black howler monkey breeding program, and in 1983 the Education Center opened, marking the first...