Elmwood Park Zoo Celebrates 100 Years in Norristown

Once in danger of extinction, Elmwood Park Zoo celebrates 100 years with plans for a serious makeover.

Stuck in traffic on the Schuylkill Expressway one day in 2011, Al Zone was on his way to cater an event in Philadelphia when he heard a KYW Newsradio interview with Bill Konstant, then the executive director and CEO of Elmwood Park Zoo. Konstant spoke of closing the financially strapped facility. “I called my dad, who was in the truck behind me, and asked if there was anything we could do.” Zone recalls.

With a family background in the food and beverage industry, Zone never figured it would actually involve running the zoo. But on May 16, 2012, it was official.

Since Zone’s arrival as executive director and CEO, the Norristown facility has been thriving. Turning 100 this year, it’s opening a new welcome center and veterinary hospital this spring. “It’s been a unique, creative time for us,” says Shaun Rogers, Elmwood’s marketing director. “The animal hospital and welcome center are the first dominoes, but we’re also laying the foundation for the next 100 years. The master plan reworks the zoo like never before.”

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Elmwood Park Zoo was established in 1924, when a local farmer transferred 16 acres and a small menagerie to the borough. Today, it’s owned and operated by the nonprofit Norristown Zoological Society with a mission to foster an appreciation for wildlife and an environment that inspires active participation in conservation. In the process, Elmwood has earned elite status, with accreditation from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. “There are 30,000 animal-collection establishments around the globe,” Zone says. “We’re one of only about 230 accredited by the AZA. We don’t want to be part of those who aren’t.”

The average Philadelphia Zoo guest visits once every three or four years. Elmwood regulars come three to four times a year.

Elmwood maintains a collection of some 300 animals from 100 different species culled worldwide. The goal is 500 animals within the decade. Highlights include giraffes, zebras, bald and golden eagles, jaguars, and red pandas. A number of species are managed pursuant to an international Species Survival Plan that helps those under the greatest threat of extinction. Other species—like the American bison, peregrine falcon and American alligator—represent significant wildlife conservation success stories.

Elmwood is a success story in itself. Before Zone, there were 114,000 annual visitors. Today, it’s up to 1 million. At one point, just 1,300 members were on the books. Now, there’s 60,000—and Elmwood operates on an annual budget of $16–$20 million. Currently, there are 16 acres inside the gates. An expanded parking lot and easement add 10, and there are plans to develop 22 more. Another 12 will remain undeveloped. By comparison, the Philadelphia Zoo sits on 42 acres. “We’re 20 minutes from the oldest zoo in the nation in Philadelphia, but we’re trying to get that same experience so much closer to home,” says Zone. “We look at the zoo as being experiential.”

Zone has done the surveys necessary to compete. He notes that the average guest visits the Philadelphia Zoo once every three or four years, while Elmwood regulars come three or four times a year. Elmwood is the first autism-certified zoo in world, and the first pet-friendly facility of its kind in the country. “For it to happen as quickly as it’s happened is pretty amazing for any zoo—not just for Elmwood,” Zone says. “We’ve added a zip-line park, a sloth exhibit. We’re the first zoo that’s hand-feeding bison.”

Though the zoo is sustainable from revenue generated at the gates, capital improvements are the result of donations. The Genuardi Family Foundation is helping fund the ongoing construction of the bridge over Stony Creek into new zoo territory. Major veterinary hospital donors were Norristown native Frank C. Engro Jr., who died in 2022, and his widow, Paige. Engro created Cable Vision of Norristown in the early 1970s.

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Forty-five this month, Zone has a young team with fresh energy and ideas. Like Zone, Rogers graduated from Norristown Area High School. He remembers sitting inside Eisenhower Middle School and hearing the zoo’s monkeys squawk. His early initiatives, including daily giraffe feedings, helped spark public interest.

Elmwood Park Zoo CEO Al Zone (left) with Larry Genuardi, board vice president of the Genuardi Family Foundation.
Elmwood Park Zoo CEO Al Zone (left) with Larry Genuardi, board vice president of the Genuardi Family Foundation. Photo by Ed Williams.

When Dr. Michelle Goodman took a part-time veterinarian job at Elmwood in 2017, she was its sole vet a single day a week. She sold zoo administrators on a full-time position in 2018, then became acting curator and veterinarian in 2020. Last summer, she added a full-time assistant veterinarian.

The need for a new hospital had already been identified before Goodman arrived. She ushered in a small renovation of the clinic, then focused on raising funds for the cutting-edge machines that will be part of the new hospital. “I knew when I was interviewed what the plans were,” says Goodman. “I saw a lot of opportunity for myself—and for advancing the organization and the care standards of our animals.”

Connecting Elmwood Park Zoo to the community has been integral to its success—and now it’s part of the borough’s resurgence. “Norristown has had a bad stigma for a long time,” says Zone, who still lives in Norristown. “In the past, you’d only go to Norristown because you had to go to the courthouse. Now, we’re in the foreground of Norristown’s redevelopment.”

The borough was once home to less than 1% of Elmwood’s visitors. Now, it’s up to 13%. “I tell everyone I’m Norristown before I tell them I’m the zoo,” Zone says.

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Visit elmwoodparkzoo.org.

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