A Growing History

Living the Legacy. Fulfilling the Vision.


Celebrating 100 Years of Natural History.

Rooted in over a century of conservation, Naples Zoo at Caribbean Gardens is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) with a rich history dating to 1919. It's been a wild 100 years with an even more exciting future ahead!


The story of Naples Zoo at Caribbean Gardens begins with botanist Dr. Henry Nehrling. An early conservationist, Nehrling wrote in 1904, "It is high time to protect and preserve what is still left." He first acquired the Naples site in 1919 to avoid a repetition of the disastrous freeze to his plant collection in central Florida in 1917. At that time, this portion of Naples was being sold in farm plots for agriculture. In regard to his new work, he stated, "In my 66th year, I again became a pioneer of the wilderness." His newfound devotion allowed him to say in 1925, "My garden, containing about 3,000 species of tropical plants, is a constant source of intense pleasure and delight." His new home, the famed "Tropical Garden," one of the earliest plant collections in Florida, occupied the northern acreage of the present day Gardens. Many of his plantings, still remaining, provided the inspiration for current endeavors. Dr. David Fairchild, the veteran plant explorer associated with Fairchild Tropical Gardens in Coral Gables, wrote of Nehrling, "He was always a naturalist at heart...a great plantsman of the type so rare that one can hope to meet only a few, even in a long life of travel."

Leading scientists and environmentalists of the day consulted with the keenly observant botanist about his work during their visits to his gardens. Nehrling's guests included the likes of Theodore Roosevelt, nature writer John Burroughs, horticulturist Liberty Hyde Bailey, pioneer naturalist Charles Torrey Simpson, botanist David Fairchild, and famed inventor Thomas Edison. During his work for the Office of Foreign Seed and Plant Introduction to the U.S. Bureau of Plant Industry, Nehrling introduced over 300 new and beneficial plants to the United States including the colorful and immensely popular caladium. Dr. Whitmer Stone of the Academy of Natural Sciences at Philadelphia said of him, "A typical German professor of the old school, of courtly manner and enthusiastically absorbed in his work, he made a host of warm friends and was pleased as a child when visitors admired his garden."

Following his death in 1929, however, more than twenty years were to pass before his garden was admired again. Of Nehrling himself, David Fairchild reflected, "The wildlife is passing. Man is destroying it. Dr. Nehrling loved it and taught thousands to follow his lead." Indeed, although he received some recognition in his lifetime including the Meyer Medal for service in the introduction of plants to the United States, the far reaching work of Dr. Nehrling is continuing to receive even more attention into the present time including the "Plant Protection Award of Eminence" and "Honor Roll of Eminence" awarded by the Florida Department of Agriculture in 1997. Most of his writings are maintained at Rollins College. Two of his texts were edited by a Smithsonian Institute botanist for reprint in in the 21st century.

The story of Nehrling's tropical garden resumes in 1946 during lunch at the Naples Hotel. Julius Fleischmann of Cincinnati, Ohio arrived in town to soon change the vision of Naples. His grandfather established Fleischmann Yeast that eventually became Standard Brands. Along with entrepreneurial success, the Fleischmanns also had a history of cultural contributions. One of Julius' Naples contemporaries stated he "was active in the family business, but his interests were divergent and included publishing, ownership in several hotels, theatrical production, director and president of the Ballet Russe in Monte Carlo, and he was one of the most renowned yachtsmen in the world." In the 1930s, Fleischmann had sailed the Pacific on a commission to survey plants of the South Seas for the United States Department of Agriculture. During that trip, Fleischmann was also documenting previously uncharted waters. Those charts proved very useful for the military during World War II. He also collected many artifacts currently held by the Cincinnati Museum of Natural History.

By the early 1950s, he had begun constructing buildings along present day 3rd Street. In 1952, after choosing a dedicated staff, Fleischmann set about the immense restoration of Nehrling's garden. Clearing a trail through the gardens, removing years of debris, nurturing old plantings, digging lakes and planting a multitude of new species, Fleischmann created a showplace for his guests to see the almost forgotten dream of 1919. By 1954, complete with an array of tropical birds, the garden was ready to delight guests once again and now under its present name Caribbean Gardens. Naples itself was still in its infancy. Early brochures for the garden describe the garden's location as "just north of Naples."

A vacation in 1967 initiated the next era for the Caribbean Gardens. Col. Lawrence and Nancy Jane Tetzlaff, known as Jungle Larry® and Safari Jane®, visited the Gardens as they were seeking out a winter quarters for their collection of rare animals. The Tetzlaffs were well known expedition leaders and zoo operators in the Midwest. Larry Tetzlaff had taken his childhood interest in animals and built it into a lifelong mission. Following the publication of one of his scientific papers while still in college, Tetzlaff was offered a job by the famed animal collector Frank Buck during the 1939 World's Fair in New York City.

And that was just the beginning. In those early years, Tetzlaff experienced all manners of animal work - from doing stunt work for Johnny Weissmuller in the Tarzan films to milking venomous snakes to provide serum for the soldiers in the Pacific islands. After the war, Tetzlaff returned to the Midwest to communicate his knowledge of the animal kingdom. Audiences ranging from school children to supreme court justices listened to his message of conservation. During this time, Nancy Jane joined him not only as wife but also as partner. Together they traversed both lush Amazonian rainforest and dusty African roads. On their expeditions, Larry recorded cultures and the animal life on 16mm motion picture film while Nancy documented with still photography. Back home in the states, they shared the wonders of these foreign locales in person and on television. Combining film footage and living animals, the Tetzlaffs taught many to appreciate the awesome diversity our planet offers and the critical need to protect it. Their early conservation programs also included domestic concerns like their mid-1960s program called "The Vanishing Everglades." And Larry's often repeated phrase "Conservation is the name of the game" was in print years before the Endangered Species Act was established.

Beginning in 1964, they also operated a zoological area within the Cedar Point theme park in Ohio and began entertaining and educating over a million guests a season. Although committed to their summer audience, the Tetzlaffs wanted a warm winter home so the animals could be outside all year long. During that vacation in 1967, the Tetzlaff family fell in love with the Gardens but learned the property was not available. The Tetzlaffs did not forget Naples, however, and, shortly after Fleischmann's death, the Tetzlaffs were contacted to see if they would exhibit their animals within the Gardens. They readily agreed. Surveying the grounds, however, the Tetzlaffs then faced the challenge of carefully placing the exhibits around decades old exotic plants and trees. The magnificence of beautiful animals in such a garden proved well worth all the effort. On September 1, 1969, a wide range of the world's animals greeted the Gardens' guests for the first time.

Since that time, the tranquillity of the Gardens has inspired many successful breeding programs for some of the earth's most beautiful animals. Zoo director Jack Hanna commented, "When you think of Jungle Larry, you think of a man and his family who literally dedicated their lives to exotic creatures of the earth." Although Larry Tetzlaff passed away in 1984, Nancy Jane Tetzlaff, her family, and staff continued the vision of her late husband through expanded exhibits and educational activities. You can easily see that vision today in presentations like Safari Canyon -- a technologically updated version of what Larry & Nancy did years ago with their films and live animals. The concept for the new show was envisioned by their oldest son David Tetzlaff and the educational graphics and video were coordinated by youngest son Tim Tetzlaff. In 2000, one of a handful of bronze markers celebrating Naples Diamond Jubilee was placed by the Tetzlaffs to commemorate the historical value of the garden beginning with Dr. Nehrling's pioneering work.

The Zoo also continued its rich tradition of conservation through funding and staff time for varied projects around the world from the panthers of Florida to the lemurs of Madagascar. In 2001, Naples Zoo achieved national accreditation by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the organization that sets the highest standards for zoos and aquaria. (AZA accreditation is reviewed every five years.) The next year, the Zoo opened Panther Glade, an exhibit to educate guests about the endangered Florida panther done in cooperation with National Wildlife Federation. 

During this time of earning national accreditation, the Zoo faced its biggest crisis. Since 1969, the property was leased from the Fleischmann estate. In 2002, the side of the Fleischmann family that inherited the land let it be known that they were interested in selling the 43 acres of Zoo property and the nearly 120 surrounding acres - the first time the property had been for sale since Julius Fleischmann acquired it in the 1950s. Armed with this knowledge and knowing that an outside buyer would bulldoze the zoo and gardens, the Tetzlaffs began public meetings with the Board of Collier County Commissioners regarding a public purchase of the property. During this time, the Fleischmann family waited to allow the community to act. In 2004, a referendum was placed before the voters to let them decide the fate of the Zoo.

Wonderfully, the land purchase was approved with a record 73% of voters in favor in 2004. An arrangement with The Trust for Public Land allowed the final transition. And to make this purchase easier for the county and other parties, the Tetzlaffs converted the Zoo to a 501(c)(3) charitable organization and handed over control to the new Naples Zoo Board of Directors. This change allowed the community to keep their historic trees and Zoo with decades of improvements and national accreditation. At the same time, the community did not to buy Zoo assets or take on any operational expenses. Even though the land was paid off in about five years, the benefits for Collier Residents continue to this day. 

With its future finally secured and its status as a nonprofit established, Naples Zoo began planning a series of both new programs and new species as well as constructing new habitats. But 2005 also saw Naples Zoo close down for a month to recover from the devastation of Hurricane Wilma. Along with tree losses, the storm caused irreparable damage to the iconic billboard-sized sign along US 41. Mercifully, the giant toucan that perched atop it was spared. While no longer watching over the highway, this toucan can now be seen residing in the garden it had faithfully pointed toward for half a century. 

As plans turned into realities, clear glass viewing was featured in the new habitats like Black Bear Hammock and also expanded to enhance viewing of existing wildlife like the Malayan tigers. To provide a better experience for all, the path that Fleischmann established through the garden in the 1950s was paved. Harkening back to Jungle Larry's early days, educational presentations in Safari Canyon and along the shores of Lake Victoria highlighted the benefits we enjoy from reptiles even including venomous species that have offered so many treatments for human health conditions from diabetes to heart disease. 

Things really began looking up in 2010 as giraffe first arrived in Naples. These gentle giants rapidly became a favorite of guests along with the fierce honey badgers that also premiered that year. 2010 also marked the return of the zoo's travel program for guests to enjoy luxury safaris to Africa hosted by expert zoo staff. 

The Fourth Era
While cheetahs made a return to Naples in 2012, David Tetzlaff announced his departure as Director at the end of that year which brought to a close the third era of the site's history. Following a national search and more than 100 candidates for a new President and CEO, the Board of Directors selected Jack Mulvena, then Executive Director of Roger Williams Park Zoo, another AZA-accredited facility based in Rhode Island that then had twice the attendance of Naples Zoo. The AZA's President and CEO at the time stated, "Jack knows from experience how to sustain the highest standards of animal care, offer compelling experiences to zoo guests, and create a professional working environment that attracts the top talent in the zoo profession. In Naples, as he did in Providence, Jack Mulvena can be expected to draw the entire community into efforts to continuously improve the zoological collection while strengthening the zoo’s economic impact on the region and the state.” With a proven track record, Jack set to work on an ambitious capital campaign to invest in much needed infrastructure while also premiering new exhibits and expanding his leadership team.

Soon after, the botanical garden was accredited by The Morton Register of Arboreta and became a member of the American Public Gardens Association. Jack also introduced Dream Night to Naples Zoo and partnered with Golisano Children's Hospital. At this invitation-only event, the Zoo closes to the general public so families with children facing severe health conditions can enjoy the zoo for free surrounded only by other understanding families in similar situations along with their doctors and nurses and their families. 

With a renewed focus on student education under Jack, Naples Zoo formalized a collaboration with Collier County Public Schools in 2013 launching the first ZooCon event featuring National Geographic Explorer and Madagascar expert Dr. Luke Dollar. Through this innovative program, students not only engage in a live presentation from the Zoo at their school, but pre-selected students can ask questions on camera to Luke. This program has since blossomed to reach kindergarten through fifth grade now reaching over 20,000 students a year and connects experts as far away as East Africa to local classrooms. In 2015, Naples Zoo launched its first formal education program soon followed by establishing a permanent on-site classroom.

Beyond education, Naples Zoo was also increasing commitments to conservation and animal welfare by increasing staff resources in both areas as well as planning for an expansive animal hospital capable of caring for all the zoo's wildlife along with assisting with local large wildlife like Florida panthers. Illustrating the confluence of the two interests was the creation of a short-term rehabilitation facility for Florida panthers to provide a much-needed resource for state and federal agencies. Orphaned kittens and injured adults have received care in this facility located here the heart of panther range reducing the travel time and stress for both panthers and panther biologists.

Based on the Master Plan and the planned orientation for the new entry complex, a new parking area to the south opened in 2016 followed in 2017 by a solar array of panels over the parking that provides shade for vehicles and power for the electricity grid. An all-new python habitat premiered at this time as well highlighting the collaboration between Naples Zoo and The Conservancy of Southwest Florida to help manage the population of invasive Burmese pythons in Florida. In 2018, Naples Zoo had the honor of being selected as the International Headquarters of the Madagascar Fauna and Flora Group (MFG), a global consortium of zoos, aquariums, botanical gardens, and universities dedicated to conserving Madagascar's rich biodiversity. Prior to Naples, the MFG was headquartered at Saint Louis Zoo since 2004 and at San Francisco Zoo prior to that going back to the founding of MFG in 1988.

Naples Zoo's centennial in 2019 coincided with the opening of the Glass Animal Hospital and Smith Animal Commissary. Under the leadership of a full-time veterinarian, the hospital features extensive health care facilities including a positive pressure ventilated surgery suite, treatment room, recovery rooms, quarantine, and laboratory - all fully equipped. It also serves as an evacuation area for animals during hurricanes as it is built well above the flood level and has a full-facility back up generator. Likewise, the Malayan tiger feeding dens were also rebuilt at an elevated height. Hurricane Ian's heavy flooding put these facilities to the test, which they passed with flying colors.  And speaking of elevation, guests enjoyed feeding the giraffe herd in new ways as the new viewing area constructed in 2021 raises guests up while they feed them eye to eye.

Later in 2023 promises even more with new habitats for giant anteaters, capybara, Baird's tapir, cotton-top tamarins, and other South American species. Nearby a four-story high space between two historic Lofty fig trees will be home to Bornean orangutans, the first time guests will see this species here. And 2024 will feature the premier of an all new Visitor Entrance Complex to efficiently welcome guests into the Zoo and offer them an all new gift store experience. An expansive education center will feature multiple classrooms for engaging even more students. These classrooms can also be converted to a space for the Zoo's Conservation Lecture Series. Along with a new flamingo and spoonbill aviary, guests will find greatly enhanced viewing of Alligator Bay. 

We hope you've enjoyed learning about the people who nurtured the garden you experience today. As you can see, it's been a wild 100 years with an even wilder future ahead! We invite you to be part of this ongoing story and the promising future that awaits by visiting, joining as a member, or becoming a donor. 


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