When you think of the Bass family of Fort Worth, you might think of the Bass Performance Hall or the philanthropists and patrons of the Fort Worth Art Museum. What you may not think about is the Fort Worth Zoo. However, for more than 30 years, Ramona S. Bass has been quietly working to improve one of the city’s most popular attractions.
It all started on a date. Fort Worth billionaire Lee Bass brought his then-fiancee, San Antonio native Ramona Seeligson, to the Fort Worth Zoo in the early 1980s. Seeligson did not like the conditions she saw at the zoo, so Lee encouraged her to do something to change it.
“I don’t think at that time he knew what he was actually getting himself into,” she told NBC DFW.
Ramona Seeligson Bass eventually helped persuade the City of Fort Worth to accept a private management partnership to run the Fort Worth Zoo.
At first, the city council met her proposal with resistance.
“It was a battle; people were fighting us. There was yelling and screaming at the city council meetings. But finally, the city realized that it was for their benefit,” said Bass.
Bass says she believes the fear stemmed from her being new to town, and the idea of a private management contract for a city-owned entity was novel. The project would cost a lot of money, and the council was unsure how it would turn out.
The Fort Worth Zoological Association assumed management of the zoo in 1991. Bass has served on the board of directors since then and has been the zoo’s chief fundraiser over the years.
The zoo’s executive director, Michael Fouraker, has described Bass as a “fearless leader” and “the driving force behind all of the zoo’s advancements.” He stated that Bass’ passion, commitment, and vision are the reason for the 30-year renaissance of the Fort Worth Zoo.
Thirty years and $300 million later, the Fort Worth Zoo is one of the best in the country. It was ranked 2nd Best Zoo in the nation in a 2021 USA Today reader poll.
It was featured last year in an episode of the television series World’s Greatest because of its exemplary animal care, conservation advancements, and recreation and animal education it provides to its guests.
One of Bass’ favorite areas in the zoo is Texas Wild, an exhibit that opened in 2001 featuring animals native to Texas. However, always seeking to improve, Bass says the exhibit is due for a makeover.
Bass is also very proud of the Museum of Living Art or MOLA, a herpetarium housing more than 5,000 reptiles and amphibians, including turtles, snakes, Komodo dragons, and more.
“I knew a lot about mammals, but not a lot about amphibians… so there was a lot of give and take with the keepers,” says Bass.
In 2016, the Fort Worth Zoo launched a $100 million master plan project called “A Wilder Vision” that will pay for more space for habitats and renovations to existing habitats and will provide new ways to observe, learn, and interact with the animals.
The 10-acre African Savanna habitat, which opened in 2018, was the result of the project’s first phase. The African Savanna is home to giraffes, ostriches, springbok, and a variety of birds.
Also included is the hippo river with above-water and underwater viewing, where the 2,600-pound water lovers spend their days lounging in the lazy river surrounded by colorful fish.
Phase two of “A Wilder Vision” resulted in the opening of the Elephant Springs habitat in 2021. The zoo’s newest baby elephant, Brazos, was born six months after the new exhibit opened. Now, three generations of the same elephant family enjoy the grounds of the habitat, along with a neighboring rhino.
Phase three of “A Wilder Vision” is currently underway. The Asian Predators and Hunters habitat is scheduled to open in 2023 and will house lions, tigers, zebras, and other animals.
Phase four will bring okapi, or “forest giraffe,” only found in the northeast Democratic Republic of the Congo in central Africa, to the zoo.
For Bass, taking on projects at the Fort Worth Zoo has become her “passion and purpose.” She works to conserve animals and has donated to help breed Texas horned lizards, Houston toads, and kangaroo rats. The zoo is also working to protect and breed the endangered Southern Black Rhino.
When asked why she was now talking about her philanthropic efforts at the Fort Worth Zoo, Bass said she is very proud of her team and all the work they have done over the years, but she continues to keep her head down and work.
Bass attributes her work ethic to a quote from Ronald Reagan: “It’s amazing what you can get done when you don’t care who gets the credit.”