By Ruth Ann Ruiz
The Post Newspaper Features Editor
Filling the shoes of a legendary husbandman can’t be easy, yet it is exactly what Rita King and her daughter Dana Lewis have been doing out at Bayou Wildlife Zoo in Alvin.
Former owner Clint Wolston put 30 years of his life into building the 86-acre park. In 2016, Wolston began the quest to find the one-in-a-million buyer for his life’s work.
On March 13, 2020 Dan and Rita King closed on their purchase of the zoo and went straight to their new business to shutter it up due to the pandemic. The zoo was reopened in June of last year.
The highlight of the zoo is a 30-minute tram ride. Guests are taken along a dusty, bumpy, up-and-down path into the pasture areas for some of the wildlife. Guests can purchase feed pellets to feed only the animals along the tram ride.
Llamas, emus, zonkeys, donkeys, zebras, camels, ostriches, water buffalo, deer, and geese all come chasing the tram for a little human attention and those precious feed pellets.
Children and adults squeal with delight and are very careful to keep their fingers around the plastic bowl (not inside the bowl) as they were well-instructed prior to the ride. Some of the animals are more intrusive into the tram than others, but everyone seems to enjoy a chance to have a face-to-face encounter with animals that are usually only seen from a distance.
Carter Hilton had come on-field trips many times to the zoo. He finally talked his parents into making the drive from Katy for a Saturday afternoon outdoor adventure. “I like the water buffalos best. I like how they lay in the water,” said Carter.
The emu also liked the food pellets in Carter’s dish.
Zookeepers feeding the alligators is another highlight. Guests are kept behind several layers of fencing for this viewing only experience.
Kids, adults and guests from all over have been coming to the Bayou Wildlife Zoo for three decades. Some of these individuals fell in love with the zoo to such an extent they made career moves and hopped on the zoo tram-wagon.
Sabrina Roschbach brought her own children out to the zoo many times over the course of 18 years. She became one of the new crew members at the zoo in 2020.
“It was great just to be here and see the animals. I didn’t care what my task was, I was super excited to see the ostriches every day,” said Roschbach. Her first assignment was cleaning the stalls of animals and the men’s and women’s restrooms.
Roschbach has graduated from mucking stalls and is a tram driver and head caretaker for the zoo’s two giraffes. When not at work, she is majoring in wildlife biology through Oregon State on-line studies.
Dana Lewis, daughter of the owners, used to bring children from her daycare center to the zoo. She sold her daycare and is now in the person in charge of operations at the zoo. “I feel like this is my calling, I love being out here with the animals,” she said.
She doesn’t have one favorite; she loves them all. “Each animal has a unique personality,” said Lewis. “But I gotta watch out for the lemurs, they’ll throw their monkey biscuits at you if they think they didn’t get enough bananas,” she added.
The Bayou Wildlife Zoo is ready to protect the animals during natural disasters that come through the region. “Throughout the ice storm, we fed our animals every hour to keep them moving,” said Lewis.
For hurricane preparedness, all animals are moved into tightly closed, elevated shelters. Last year the crew locked down the animals as the region prepared for a potential direct strike of Hurricane Laura.
“Most of the animals can sense a storm and it’s not too hard to get them all inside,” said Lewis. “Some of them try to find shelter under a tree, but we’ll move them all inside if the storm is going to be severe.”
Though the new owners are enjoying the adventure, they are glad for Wolston’s vision as the founder. “I wouldn’t have wanted to build this business from scratch,” said King.
On an average day, 500-800 guests visit the hundreds of animals from 60 different species. With some sprucing up and slight changes accomplished, Wolston’s legacy at Bayou Wildlife Zoo continues to educate and amuse visitors of all ages.