In Gainesville, Texas, just 45 minutes north of Dallas on I-35, there is a great little zoo. It’s a perfect destination for families, but there’s a great history behind it, as well.
The zoo is named for Frank Buck, who was something akin to the Crocodile Hunter in the 1930’s and 40’s. Buck was born in Gainesville in 1884. His family moved to Dallas in 1889, where he spent his childhood catching snakes and birds in the Turtle Creek area. After dropping out of school in the 7th grade, he worked various jobs, including cowpunching.
After a successful poker game at the age of 27, he decided to take his winnings and travel to South America. He returned with some exotic birds, which he quickly sold for a nice profit. Realizing the money to be made in selling exotic animals, he began a lifetime of traveling to Asia for strange and interesting creatures to sell to American zoos and circuses.
The amazing thing about Frank Buck’s excursions is the methods he used for catching dangerous animals. In a time before tranquilizer darts (and animal rights activists), Buck built ingenious traps and tricked, wrestled, and herded elephants, tigers, pythons, and all manner of large and small animals in the jungles of Malaysia. He hired locals to work in his Jungle Camp, and then transported the animals back to the States on ships.
During this time, he also served as Director of the San Diego Zoo, and eventually achieved fame as an author, radio and movie actor, director, and speaker. In 1938 he became the star attraction in the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus. Buck was forced to halt his world travels during World War 2, so he focused even more on his radio, movie, and book careers. As soon as the war ended, he resumed his travels and animal captures.
Frank Buck wrote 8 books, produced, acted, and/or directed in 8 movies, and provided animals for numerous American zoos, including Dallas, the Bronx, San Diego, and many more. Short clips of a few of his animal captures are available on YouTube, and all of his other work is available for purchase on Amazon. He was a lively character, and as I mentioned, comparable to the Crocodile Hunter in bravery and entertainment! He passed away in 1950.
The year after his death, the Gainesville Community Circus was renamed the Frank Buck Zoo in his honor. In recent years it has been continuously expanded to include an African Savannah exhibit, a lemur exhibit, and this year the zoo will welcome African Penguins.
There is a gift shop as well as an elevated picnic area overlooking the African Savannah. Every morning, zoo visitors have an opportunity to feed giraffes (for an additional $1 per person). The zoo is conveniently located adjacent to Leonard Park and Aquatic Center, the city’s large playground and public swimming pool.
A visit to the Frank Buck Zoo would not be complete without perusing the Frank Buck Exhibit. Mr. Buck’s daughter donated many of his personal items in 2008 for a fascinating display. You can pick up a copy of his book “Bring ‘em Back Alive” while you’re there.
Frank Buck Zoo is open all year. It is located at 1000 W. California Street, Gainesville. For hours and admission, call 940-668-4539 or visit the website.