The Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens is celebrating 100 years in business and looking forward to a busy centennial year.
"When you hit 100 years, that is just such a landmark event," said zoo executive director Tony Vecchio. "What it says is, not that your old, it says that you know how to be successful for a long time."
The zoo opened in Springfield on May 12, 1914, with the donation of one red deer fawn. Several domestic animals were subsequently added and a "monkey island" was established.
Today the zoo is home to several protected species including jaguars, Florida Panther, Bald Eagle, and American Alligator.
To celebrate the centennial, banking giant JPMorgan Chase is sponsoring the giveaway of 100 individual zoo memberships to Chase cardholders beginning today.
Zoo spokeswoman Amy Hernden said that as of around 2 p.m. there were still free memberships available.
Local Chase executive Michal Butler and Jacksonville Mayor Alvin Brown attended an event today kicking off the year-long celebration today where they met penguins and visited with jaguar cubs born last year.
Vecchio attributed the zoo's longevity in part to the support of the surrounding community.
"The zoo has been a part of the culture and history of Jacksonville for the last hundred years, but only in the last few years has it become a national attraction," he said, noting the more than 300,000 out-of-state visitors in the 2012-2013 fiscal year.
The last several years have brought record setting attendance at the zoo with more than 816,000 total visitors last fiscal year.
The venue isn't resting on it's laurels either; in March they will open their new Land of the Tiger area featuring endangered Sumatran and Malayan Tigers.
For the next 100 years, Vecchio said he sees the zoo evolving to combine it's missions of conservation and recreation.
"One of the biggest issues we have in conservation these days is that the next generation has really lost touch with nature," he said.
"The way to get kids excited and to fan that spark that they all have is to create that experience for them."
You can follow Patrick Donges on Twitter at @patrickhdonges.