James Cox, Little Ponderosa founder, dies

James Cox, owner and founder of Little Ponderosa Zoo and Rescue, died Tuesday morning, Feb. 9.

Cox was hospitalized in late January with pneumonia and a weak heart.

“I got the call this morning that he was being taken off life support,” Anderson County Sessions Court Judge Don Elledge said shortly after noon Tuesday.

“Anderson County has lost a treasure,” Elledge said. “There will never be another James Cox.”

Elledge may have been Cox’s biggest supporter during their long friendship. They were brutally honest with each other — Elledge said he often told Cox he was too giving. Cox would do what he always did, burst out with a gregarious laugh and go on about whatever it was he was doing.

Cox would walk into a black-tie fundraising event for Little Ponderosa with his khaki shorts, work boots, and bush hat (or boony hat) and he would fit in perfectly because James Cox was bigger than life.

“That’s just it, he was a life, a force,” Elledge said. “He was a unique and caring man and there will never be another like him.”

Cox had worked as a used car salesman and an investigator, and started a pony ride business almost four decades ago. That business turned into Little Ponderosa Zoo.

“He was one of the hardest working people I’ve ever been around,” Elledge said. “He’d work at the zoo for 12, 14 hours a day. Every day. But he loved it.”

As Cox’s reputation grew, so did the demands of Little Ponderosa Zoo. Cox’s zoo became a refuge for animals that were confiscated by the courts, usually the results of drug infractions.

“I had to take them,” he said in 2010 interview. “It was take them or they would be destroyed.”

Little Ponderosa Zoo became a nonprofit zoo and rescue in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Cox and his staff spent months in Louisiana helping recapture escaped zoo animals from that region.

“He spent a lot of time in Alabama after tornadoes ripped through there a few years back,” Elledge said. “Whenever there was a natural disaster and animals were involved, James got the call. He was that well-respected and everybody knew him.”

Cox’s reputation also brought celebrities to his enclave on Granite Road. Dan Haggerty, aka Grizzly Adams, was a guest at the zoo. Ernie Brown Jr., known as The Turtle Man from the “Call of the Wildman” TV series, was also a guest of Cox and Little Ponderosa.

Cox and Haggerty became close friends. When Haggerty died in 2016, his family asked Cox to speak at the funeral.

He thanked them for the honor, but he couldn’t, he explained. It would mean leaving Little Ponderosa and being away from the animals.

Cox had numerous opportunities to appear on national television. He was asked to fly to Los Angeles one year, offered a certain amount of money and an all-expense-paid trip.

He turned it down.

“I couldn’t stand the thought of being away from my animals,” he said at the time.

There were numerous opportunities like that. All were turned down. All for the same reason.

In December 2018, a fire destroyed the main barn of Little Ponderosa.

At the time, Cox said he didn’t think he could go on. At least 45 of his animals perished in that fire.

But Anderson Countians wouldn’t let James Cox quit. With encouragement from his closest friend, Elledge, Cox rebuilt. Funds were donated from everywhere. And most times those funds were included with a card or letter of encouragement, or a reminder of how much Little Ponderosa Zoo and Rescue meant to them.

“It’s breaking my heart,” he said the morning after the fire.

“But I can’t stop,” he said the following week. “I think it was the first time I realized how much this place (Little Ponderosa) means to so many people.”

“Everyone knows James helped animals, but he also helped so many people,” Ellegde said. “There are a lot of people whose lives have been touched by James. More than anyone knows because James was unassuming. He was just a good man.”