There’s not a person in Gulf Shores, Alabama that doesn’t know the name Patti Hall. And, it didn’t take but a few minutes to understand why people in this part of the state remember her, admire her and maybe just maybe – some think she might be just be a bit off her rocker.
Of course, I say that with the utmost affection as I found Ms. Hall to be one of the most interesting people I’ve met while covering travel and writing about people and places making America great. Sitting on a picnic table watching baby kangaroos bounce around – we talk about everything from her background to her time in the spotlight as a national celebrity.
As Director of the Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo – Patti Hall has no formal training in running a zoo. “When I was younger, I wanted to be a veterinarian. This will show my age, but back then they didn’t allow women into vet schools. So, what else was there to do but became an art major and a hippie?”
Always an animal lover, she came to volunteer at the small zoo, sometimes putting in 40 hours a week. Having worked with other non-for-profit organizations and some background in business – Patti was the perfect fit when the zoo started running into financial trouble. Today, the zoo is self-sufficient with reasonable admission fees and a favorite destination among tourists that come to town for spring break or summer vacations.
“I get more compliments from people that say they have never been to a zoo where they can actually be close enough to see the animals blink.” says Hall. It’s true – there are no moats or hard to see exhibits. You sort of get the feeling that you’re on someones farm where animals are fenced off in their own spaces but it’s easy to watch and admire their beauty.
Animal interactions are a big part of what make this place a unique visitor experience. During my visit, I stepped into an enclosed shelter with several ruffed lemurs that crawled all over me. “She really likes you” proclaimed Patti. Apparently, the female lemur napping on my shoulder doesn’t get close to many visitors. Another interaction takes place with a baby sloth – with a face that only a mother could love. I feed the thing some grapes and pray it isn’t going to rip my eyeballs out.
“There are certain times in an animals life where it’s perfectly safe for them to be exposed to humans like this. It’s great to be able to let people get close and develop a real appreciation and respect for them”.
Some are lucky enough to experience the animals even closer than others. Patti coaxed me into walking through the security gate on several stops during our tour of the zoo. Our first stop was to see two tigers that she raised personally in her home from the time they were several months old. There’s no doubt they know exactly who she is. There’s also no doubt they can both hear my heart about to beat out of my chest as I stand nearby watching the interaction. I’ve never been this close to a creature so gigantic. They both respond to Patti’s calls to come over and visit us. Scratching against the fence where we are standing, they make a noise known as “chuffing”. She reaches through the fence and gently pets them while she tells me to come a little bit closer.
Yeah, whatever lady.
There’s a reason everyone in town knows the name Patti Hall. Not only did she turn around the Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo – she became an instant celebrity here and around the world in 2004 when Hurricane Ivan made landfall in Gulf Shores. The powerful storm forced the evacuation of residents in the region – and yes, that included zoo animals.
And where did they go? To Patti’s house, of course. All 280 of them. Six tigers, two lions, cougars, bears, monkeys of all sizes, deer, goats, donkeys and even the pets of her staff members that also came to live on her property. The only thing left behind was an 11 foot alligator. It’s certainly hard to fault anyone for leaving that behind.
Watching Zoo Director, Patti Hall interact up close with two lions that she raised in her home. Now adults, they live at the Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo in Gulf Shores, Alabama.
News crews in town covering the storm caught wind of the massive animal evacuation and it instantly became a focus of national news networks and newspapers around the world. Sitting in her office, we watched a few minutes of archived footage where the late Peter Jennings of ABC News described Patti’s incredible efforts to save her animals. She proudly watches the video and points out to a co-worker the names of different animals and flashes back to those hectic and chaotic days of the zoo’s history.
As the video wraps up, her desk phone rings. Patti simple says, “Yes, bring him on up.”
Oh, crap. Now what?
In walks a beautiful, (yet frightening) Eurasian Lynx that appeared quite able to tackle me to the ground and claw my brains out. Instead, it hopped up on Patti’s desk chair and let me get close enough to take a photo and even pet him. Go figure.
One last treat on an anything but normal tour with an anything but normal woman. If I walked away with one lesson learned – normal is completely over-rated.
The Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo is located at 1204 Gulf Shores Parkway in Gulf Shores, Alabama. It’s open 9-4 daily. Patti and the zoo were also featured in the Animal Planet documentary The Little Zoo That Could which is now available for sale on DVD.