In the late 1960’s a group of visionary leaders saw the need to preserve and conserve our Colorado Desert for future generations to enjoy. On March 9, 1970, The Living Desert Association was established as an extension of the Palm Springs Desert Museum (now known as the Palm Springs Art Museum). And so began the early years surviving on an extremely modest budget and reliant upon the talent, skill, and vision of its Board of Governors, with Philip Boyd as Chair, and its newly hired Resident Naturalist and Director, Karen Sausman. Foreseeing a future when development would encroach upon the desert wilderness, the group undertook the task of fundraising, maintaining and developing The Living Desert Reserve, a 360-acre wilderness preserve.
Karen Sausman, the eager, young naturalist, began the task of developing the Reserve, and what we see today barely resembles what Karen saw when she took over the rough and wild landscape. With the help of local Boy Scouts, the nature trails were cleared and marked for members’ use and enjoyment. The first guide-book was developed for the trail, and soon after, construction began on the visitor’s center, which served as a gift shop, auditorium, exhibit hall, and more.
In 1972, the first animals arrived, a kit fox, named Twix, several tortoises and lizards. Two years later, two bighorn sheep arrived through a partnership with the University of California and California Department of Fish and Game. The construction of the Mojave Garden began in 1974-75, which included a full-scale replica of California’s high desert. At the time this was a new concept in botanical exhibition, which allowed guests to feel completely immersed in distinctly different deserts of the world.
In 1983, The Living Desert had become accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (formerly the American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums), an accreditation we proudly maintain today. The late 1980’s brought record attendance and membership enabling new buildings, enhancements and programming to be added. The 1990’s saw continued attendance growth, new events including WildLights and Howl-O-Ween, and new conservation projects. By 1993, Eagle Canyon was open, completing the North America desert interpretation and welcoming over 90,000 visitors in its first three months. Village WaTuTu debuted to the public in 1999. The giraffe savanna and the state-of-the-art Tennity Wildlife Hospital and Conservation Center opened its doors and viewing windows in 2002.
The 2000’s brought additional growth and development with Gecko Gulch, the Chase Administration Building and Discovery Center. The jaguar habitat opened in 2011, and our most recent butterfly pavilion debuted in 2014. The Zoo’s new entrance, Phase One of Crossroads of Conservation, opened in 2018, and just this last season, we welcomed a record 514,000+ guests to the Zoo.
Today, nearly fifty years later, The Living Desert Zoo and Gardens stewards 1,200 protected acres of Colorado Desert. With 35 conservation programs that span 22 countries, we are working to save wildlife and wild places every day. Reaching over 100,000 school-aged children a year gives students the opportunity to learn about and appreciate the deserts of the world. The Living Desert provides the highest level of animal care and welfare and maintains 55 botanical gardens that inspire guests to care for the natural world.
As we reflect on our past, we can see the incredible growth of an organization which could not have happened without our members, donors, volunteers, staff, supporters, and guests. And as we look to the next fifty years, our focus and dedication to save species is stronger than ever. From bighorn sheep, Peninsular pronghorn and desert tortoise, to African wild dogs, giraffe, cheetah, The Living Desert is committed to saving species locally and around the world.
Join us throughout 2020 as we celebrate 50 Years of Wonderfully Wild and share our vision for the future.