H. Cletus Broyles, President of the Civitan Club and Roanoke City Engineer conceived Mill Mountain Children’s Zoo in 1951. Designed as a children’s zoo with a nursery rhyme theme, doors opened on July 4, 1952. Originally operated by Roanoke City Parks and Recreation Department, the zoo was only open seasonally from Memorial Day to Labor Day.
As the facility became rundown due to repeated monetary losses, Roanoke City Council decided to close the Children’s Zoo in 1976. Roanoke Jaycees presented a proposal to City Council for the creation of a non-profit corporation to assume management of the Zoo in order to preserve the community zoo. Proposal accepted and in 1977 the zoo opened under their management. Plans made by the National Association of Women in Construction included exhibits for the coati, eagle, toucan and monkey. The Antrim Plaza was constructed at the center of the zoo in 1978 with new exhibits for mountain lions, toucans, and tortoises.
The name changed in 1983 to Mill Mountain Zoological Park to reflect a change in focus from nursery rhyme to a collection of North and South American animals. Grant received from the City of Roanoke in 1986 provided funding for a new golden-lion tamarin exhibit.
The Board of Directors adopted a new five-year plan in 1987, upgraded five exhibits and added red pandas to the collection. Mill Mountain Zoo, Inc. was reformed in 1988 as the Blue Ridge Zoological Society of Virginia, Inc. and committed to operating the zoo on Mill Mountain until the opening of River Foundation’s Explore Park. A year later, the River Foundation changed focus and decided to begin work on an expanded living history park. The Blue Ridge Zoological Society voted to adopt a new ten-year Master Plan and operate the zoo on Mill Mountain. In 1991, the Society accepted Master Plan developed by Hill Studio, Roanoke, Virginia. Focus of plan was to begin work on an Asian animal collection to tie-in with Roanoke’s Sister City in Wonju, Korea.
New tiger exhibit constructed in 1992 and in 1993 the Mill Mountain Development Committee, a City Council appointed Citizen’s Committee, approved the Mill Mountain Zoo’s master plan. Mill Mountain Zoo received accreditation from the American Zoo and Aquarium Association in 1995. The Zoo Society and Roanoke Jaycees signed an agreement for operation of the ZooChoo in 1995 and the Roanoke County Sister City Picnic Pavilion was completed.
In 1997, the lease for zoo property was expanded to five acres and new Snow Leopard Exhibit was completed. In 2000 Mill Mountain Zoo again received accreditation from the American Zoo and Aquarium Association and a complete renovation of the front entrance was completed. Lease renewal in 2001 provided for the zoo to receive final expansion of property to eight acres. Since 1990 over $790,000 worth of improvements has been added to the zoo including recent upgrades of the water system and offices. Newer additions to the animal collection include wolverine, takin, tufted deer and fishing cat.
April 2005, the Beth Poff, Director of twenty-five years moved to Jackson Zoo and Laurie Spangler served as Interim Director.
Roanoke City provided a $500,000 matching capital grant to Mill Mountain Zoo to further the capital programs.
In March, 2006, Sean Greene, Outreach Director, Fort Worth Zoo, was named Executive Director. Mr. Greene returned to Texas in October, 2007, and works for Dallas Zoo.
December 2007, David Orndorff, Mill Mountain Zoo Curator was named as the new Executive Director and Curator.
April 2008, new quarantine building is complete.
May 2008 walk through Aviary is complete , New Asian Black Hornbill exhibit opens, as does a new Red Wolf exhibit
August 2008, Mill Mountain Zoo purchases new Zoo Choo train.
Since 2008 numerous capital projects have taken place.
In July of 2021, Niki Voudren was selected as the Executive Director after serving on the Zoo’s Board of Directors for three years. Under Voudren’ s leadership, Mill Mountain Zoo has made over $1,000,000 in facility and infrastructural improvements, including the addition of a new maintenance building, the creation of Carilion Children’s Curiosity Corner, and three new exhibits – Black Bear, Red Wolf, and Python House. The new leadership team raised funds to make critical repairs throughout the zoo, launched a successful campaign to renew the iconic Zoo Choo and mural the train tunnel, created a new website and data base, installed the first green wall and green roof, restructured the staff, changed the brand, and created two new endowment funds for financial sustainability. While there are many new things to experience at Mill Mountain Zoo, the Zoo remains a historic, popular attraction in the region, and has plans for more new exhibits.
Mill Mountain Zoo is located within Mill Mountain Park, a beautiful 568-acre regional park which is maintained by Roanoke Parks and Recreation. Located at the top of Mill Mountain just off the scenic Blue Ridge Parkway, the zoo overlooks the city of Roanoke and the surrounding mountain vistas. The zoo was founded in 1952 and is a 501(c)(3) non-profit operated by the Blue Ridge Zoological Society.
Our mission at the Mill Mountain Zoo is to promote an appreciation and understanding of wildlife and habitat preservation through the use of quality exhibits and educational programs, and to work in cooperation with other animal conservation programs. Our facility advances three core beliefs: excellence in the implementation of the highest standards of animal care, conservation management of endangered species, and fostering science education through its animal collection. While a recreational attraction, the zoo strives to provide an enjoyable experience for visitors within the context of an educational organization dedicated to the natural sciences and management of captive animal species.
We are active participants in cooperative conservation programs with other zoos with species such as Snow leopards, Red pandas, and Pallas cats. Our animal collection continues to grow and evolve as our facility moves in a new strategic direction with our Virginia Wild concept. This new direction for the zoo will focus on species that are native to Appalachia and the Blue Ridge Mountains in particular. Highlighted species in the future will include Black bear, and a Bald eagle that will join many of the species that are already here at the zoo such as the Red Fox, Raccoons, and Red Wolves.
Our goal is to introduce new generations to their native wildlife and educate them that conservation starts right here at home. However, we still plan to continue forward with maintaining Snow leopards and other Asian species so that we can educate our patrons about the threats posed to endangered, threatened, and vulnerable species that inhabit mountain ranges far away as well. As a result, we are adding new exhibits and renovating existing structures to expand our animal collection and advance our educational programming while better serving our visitors.
Today, the Mill Mountain Zoo is the only major non-profit wildlife attraction on the entire 469-mile span of Blue Ridge Parkway, and enjoys continued success thanks to the support of the community, philanthropic organizations, and private donors.