The Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo, founded in 1989, is located in Gulf Shores, Baldwin County, near the white sand beaches of southern Alabama on the Gulf of Mexico. The zoo is home to a broad collection of animals and receives more than 100,000 visitors annually. It has weathered numerous hurricanes, requiring evacuations and several reconstructions. It is the first U.S. zoo to conduct a full-scale evacuation during a natural disaster. The dedication of the staff, volunteers, and visitors drew the attention of the Animal Planet cable channel, which led to a reality television series, The Little Zoo That Could, and a subsequent boom in visitors and media attention.
Gulf Shores resident Joey Ward founded the zoo as Zooland Animal Park in June 1989. Early attractions included a small aviary, a reptile house, and a petting zoo, as well as a few large cats and primates. The collection grew as animals were donated to the zoo, purchased, or loaned out from other zoos. In 1991, the Ward family donated 17 acres to the zoo and began the non-profit corporation Zoo Foundation, Inc. Three years later, the Ward family and the Erie Meyer Foundation donated an additional 13 acres for expansion. Patti Hall, who began with the zoo as a volunteer in 1996, became zoo director in June 1997, taking the reins from Troy Peterson, who went on to manage the Saraland Zoo near Mobile.
In July 1997, Gulf Shores was hit by Hurricane Danny, which released more than 30 inches of rain and caused flooding in southern Alabama. Hurricane Georges hit the area in September 1998, causing more flooding damage. The zoo evacuated its more than 200 animals during both hurricanes, loading them into sport-utility vehicles and refrigerated trucks and transporting them 15 miles inland to Hall's home in Elberta. These expensive measures and subsequent repair costs led Zoo Foundation directors to eye closing down the zoo in 1999, the same year the zoo adopted its current name. Hall led fundraising efforts to engage the community in the zoo's continued existence, assisted and supported by the Alabama Gulf Coast Area Chamber of Commerce, Alabama Gulf Coast Convention & Visitor Bureau, service clubs, businesses, and private donors. Hurricane Ivan struck in September 2004, and again the zoo staff evacuated the majority of the animals. A white-tail deer, a peacock, and an emu could not be caught and were lost during the evacuation. The remaining animals were returned to the zoo over a nine-week period as repairs and replacements to the facilities were made. Ivan caused about $500,000 in damage to the zoo, forcing it to close for the next 14 months as repairs were made. Hurricanes Dennis and Katrina came through the area during the 2005 hurricane season and led to more evacuations, but in October 2005 the zoo officially reopened.
As ground zero for Hurricane Ivan, Gulf Shores attracted a great deal of interest from major news networks, whose reporters descended on the city. The flurry of evacuation activity at AGCZ drew the attention of journalists from outlets such as the Weather Channel, CNN, and the BBC. Hall appeared on Good Morning America the next day and was named "Person of the Week" by ABC's World News Tonight with Peter Jennings. In April 1995, she was contacted about a proposal to film a documentary for cable television's Animal Planet network, and filming began soon after to document the zoo's story. The series, The Little Zoo That Could, began airing the first of 13 episodes in February 2006. A one-hour Animal Planet follow-up on the progress of the zoo aired in February 2007. The national exposure from the show increased attendance more than two-fold, with numbers exceeding 100,000 in 2006, up from 40,000 in 2004. Another windfall benefited the zoo in February 2006, when Clyde Weir, the owner of Souvenir City stores in Gulf Shores and neighboring Orange Beach, donated 25 acres for a new site for the zoo at a higher elevation further inland. The new facility, which will feature an underwater viewing area at the tiger enclosure and a large storm shelter, is scheduled to open in 2012. Tiger expert Josip Marcan donated two Bengal tiger cubs to the zoo in 2011 to honor the Weir family and celebrate the planned move.
The current zoo houses a collection of mammals that includes lions, bears, white Siberian tigers, and monkeys, as well as a reptile house, an aviary, a petting zoo, and a live-animal theater during summer months. Educational programs include lectures, job shadowing, showings of the animals at off-site locations, and a weeklong summer zoo camp for children ages 5–12. Winter events at the zoo include "Boo at the Zoo" at Halloween, the "Annual Zoolabration Golf Tournament" in November, and the "Sandy Claws" Christmas celebration.