Scorched by the Florida sun, Pat Quinn walked across Florida acreage carpeted with scrub brush and shaded by turkey oaks and sand pines. He kicked at the sandy earth and considered, back in the early 1980s, how this untouched land in Gulf Breeze might become northwest Florida's only zoological park.
The area could use a zoo, and Quinn and his partners were well positioned to make it happen.
That day, Quinn no longer was thinking about the possum, wild boar, muskrat and groundhogs that he had eaten while growing up in east Tennessee. Money was tight during the Great Depression, so when the youngster spotted a wild critter, his grandmother would say, "Get your gun, son. Meat's meat." Hearing that, he set out to hunt wild protein for the family table.
Quinn's interest in animals evolved over the years, beginning with his overseeing the 1970 opening of Lion Country Safari in California. Later, he moved to Florida, where he helped open the area's first zoo (since closed) in Cantonment, 10 miles north of Pensacola, where years earlier he had supplemented his income selling insulation and awning. He is also a founding board member of the Northwest Florida Zoological Society.
While on safari in the Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya in 1982 with longtime friend and pathologist Dr. James Potter, Quinn mentioned that the Pensacola area was ready for a zoo. Potter urged him to research the possibilities – and, in time, became "the economic power behind me being able to start the zoo in Gulf Breeze," Quinn said.
In 1984, with Potter's support and the encouragement of area leaders, Quinn opened a 20-acre zoo in Gulf Breeze, with 250 creatures. Today, with the addition of 30 adjoining acres, the Gulf Breeze Zoo is home to some 1,000 animals, including giraffes, coatimundi, rhinoceroses, zebras, chimpanzees, gorillas, giant tortoises, squirrel monkeys, otters, alligators, hippopotamuses, lemurs, tigers, exotic birds, bears, several species of antelope, wildebeests, African wild dogs, ostriches and emus.
Most of the zoo's residents have been purchased from other zoos, Quinn said recently. The zoo has become one of the area's major attractions, annually drawing 170,000 to 180,000 visitors and generating $6 million in revenue for the county. Visitors are especially smitten by the zoo's raised boardwalk that provides a vantage point for viewing herds of deer, wildebeest, ostrich, cape hunting dogs – and islands on which chimps and gorillas roam free.
While the zoo's residents have enjoyed a peaceful life, the economy and the ravages of occasional storms took their toll not long after Quinn and his investment partners handed over the reins to the community. Awaiting funding from the governments of Escambia and Santa Rosa counties, the zoo, today worth several million dollars, closed in the summer of 2009. Some predicted that the closing would be permanent. However, Virginia Safari Park of Natural Bridge, Va., purchased the zoo several months later and reopened it in February 2010. During the months when the zoo was closed to the public, the animals and other creatures remained in place, Quinn said, explaining that he and his partners kept the zoo afloat during that span.
New ownership has breathed new life into the attraction, which has added a Free Flight Aviary, in which budgies (parakeets) perch on visitors' hands, hats, heads and shoes as they nibble treat sticks. The zoo's meandering and well-groomed path leads roaming visitors to primates, large cats, bears, birds, a petting area, a giraffe feeding station, and indoor reptile and bat exhibits.
Quinn – who has led safaris to 17 countries, including Brazil, Peru, South Africa, the Andes and Ecuador – looks as at home at the zoo as some of its residents. He walks toward cages, makes intermittent snorting, clicking and grunting sounds and waits for the animals' reactions. A few draw close and stare back at him before ambling away. Quinn's favorite part of the zoo, he said, is the 30-acre preserve for a variety of free-range animals living in wetlands, ponds, arid expanses and other habitats. His favorite new resident is an unattractive river hog that he finds rather lovely. (Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.)
Now the zoo's director emeritus, Quinn never tires of strolling through the facility, feeding animals, chatting with workers and pausing to talk with visiting families.
A Wisconsin native with whom he recently spoke was visiting with her young grandsons. A flight attendant for two decades, she had seen much of the world. "Oh, my God," she said. "This zoo is amazing. I had no idea."
"I am happy when I see these children," Quinn remarked after chatting with youngsters visiting from Texas.
As the children scampered away, Quinn, who has five children, 17 grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren, said: "This is the legacy we wanted to leave for the community."
If You Go
Gulf Breeze Zoo.
5701 Gulf Breeze Parkway (10 miles east of Gulf Breeze and 19 miles west of Fort Walton Beach)
Hours: Open daily beginning at 9 a.m.; closing time varies by season. Closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day. Admission gates close one hour before zoo closing.
Admission: Ages 13 to 64, $13.95 or season pass, $40; Seniors (65-plus), $12.95; ages 2 to 12, $9.95 or season pass, $30; feed cup, $3; wagon rental, $7; stroller rental, $5.
Don't miss: A mini-train runs every hour on the half hour ($3), allowing up close views of larger animals, such as hippopotamuses, gorillas and chimpanzees.
Events: Summer camps, tots' programs (Saturdays), photography programs (Summer), Sunset Safari (Friday nights in June and July), Boo at the Zoo (October), The Big Scare (October), Trick or Treat Trail (October) and ZooLights (December)
Be advised: Food and drinks are not allowed inside the zoo. A picnic pavilion is adjacent to the parking lot.
Information: Contact the zoo at gulfbreezezoo.org or 850-932-2229. For information about the area, call the Santa Rosa County Chamber of Commerce at 850-623-2339 or visit srcchamber.com.