In 1904, botanist Henry Nehrling stressed "it is high time to protect and preserve what is still left in Florida." He followed up those words with action: in 1919, he acquired a parcel of land that was sold as a farm plot so he could broaden his plant collection.
That acreage became what today is the Naples Zoo.
In 1925, Nehrling's garden contained some 3,000 species of tropical plants; the "Tropical Garden" became one of the earliest botanical gardens in Florida. His visitors included some of the era's top names: Theodore Roosevelt, nature writer John Burrows and Thomas Edison.
During his long, distinguished career, the German-born Nehrling introduced more than 300 new and beneficial plants to the United States. Among his many accolades was the "Honor Roll of Eminence" awarded him posthumously by the Florida Department of Agriculture in 1997.
In 1952, Julius Fleischmann—grandson of the man who established Fleischmann Yeast—began a restoration of Nehrling's garden. In the '30s, Fleischmann had sailed the Pacific to survey plants in the South Seas for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Through Fleischmann's restoration, the zoo's modern concept began to take shape: he dug lakes, introduced new species and created showplaces for a flock of tropical birds. Thus, the Caribbean Gardens was born.
In 1969, exotic animals first came to the gardens. Larry and Nancy Jane Tetzlaff visited the Caribbean Gardens while seeking out winter quarters for their menagerie of exotic animals. The Tetzlaffs, well-known as expedition leaders and conservationists, were dedicated to teaching others about the diversity of the planet and created programs such as "The Vanishing Everglades," which combined film footage and living animals.
An updated example of the films the Tetzlaffs produced can be seen in Safari Canyon's shows.
Since that time, the zoo has launched many successful breeding and conservation programs, from Malaysian tigers to giant anteaters and many more. In 2015, the zoo created a permanent home for a young panther named Uno, who was blinded by a shotgun blast; it now houses a rehabilitation clinic for injured Florida panthers. Visit the zoo's residents on a Wild Encounter that goes behind the scenes and gets up-close and personal to these majestic creatures.