Focus Friday - The History of Zoos

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Friday, Mar 11 2011 by

A zoological garden, zoological park, menagerie, or zoo is a facility in which animals are confined within enclosures, displayed to the public, and in which they may also be bred.


London Zoo, which opened in 1828, first called itself a menagerie or “zoological garden,” short for “Gardens and Menagerie of the Zoological Society of London.”

London Zoo (Google Maps)
London Zoo

The abbreviation “zoo” first appeared in print in the UK around 1847, when it was used for the Clifton Zoo (now Bristol Zoo), but it was not until some twenty years later that the shortened form became popular in the song “Walking in the Zoo on Sunday” by music-hall artist Alfred Vance.

Bristol Zoo Gardens (Bing Maps)
Bristol Zoo Gardens

The term “zoological park” was used for more expansive facilities in Washington, D.C., and the Bronx in New York, which opened in 1891 and 1899 respectively.

Smithsonian National Zoological Park (Google Maps)
Smithsonian National Zoological Park
Bronx Zoo (Google Maps)
Bronx Zoo

Relatively new terms for zoos coined in the late 20th century are “conservation park” or “biopark”.


The predecessor of the zoological garden is the menagerie, which has a long history from the ancient world to modern times. The oldest known zoological collection was revealed during excavations at Hierakonpolis, Egypt in 2009, of a ca. 3500 B.C. menagerie.

Hierakonpolis Fort (Google Maps)
Hierakonpolis Fort

Henry I of England kept a collection of animals at his palace in Woodstock, which reportedly included lions, leopards, and camels.

Blenheim Palace (Bing Maps)
Blenheim Palace

The most prominent collection in medieval England was in the Tower of London, created as early as 1204 by King John I. Henry III received a wedding gift in 1235 of three leopards from Frederick II.

Tower of London (Birds Eye)
Tower of London

The oldest existing zoo, the Vienna Zoo in Austria, evolved from the Imperial Menagerie at the Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna, an aristocratic menagerie founded in 1752 by the Habsburg monarchy, which was opened to the public in 1765.

Tiergarten Schönbrunn (Vienna Zoo) (Google Maps)
Tiergarten Schönbrunn (Vienna Zoo)
Schönbrunn Palace (Google Maps)
Schönbrunn Palace

In 1775, a zoo was founded in Madrid, and in 1795, the zoo inside the Jardin des Plantes in Paris was founded by Jacques-Henri Bernardin, with animals from the royal menagerie at Versailles, primarily for scientific research and education.

Madrid Zoo (Birds Eye)
Madrid Zoo

Jardin des Plantes (Google Maps)
Jardin des Plantes
Palace of Versailles (Birds Eye)
Palace of Versailles

The Kazan Zoo, the first zoo in Russia was founded in 1806 by the Professor of Kazan State University Karl Fuchs.

Kazan Zoo (Google Maps)
Kazan Zoo

The Zoological Society of London, founded in 1826 by Stamford Raffles, adopted the idea of the Paris zoo when they established the London Zoo in Regent’s Park in 1828, which opened to paying visitors in 1847.

London Zoo (Google Maps)
London Zoo

The first zoological garden in Australia was Melbourne Zoo in 1860.

Melbourne Zoo (Google Maps)
Melbourne Zoo

In the same year, Central Park Zoo, the first public zoo in the United States, opened in New York, although in 1859, the Philadelphia Zoological Society had made an effort to establish a zoo, but delayed opening it until 1874 because of the American Civil War.

Central Park Zoo (Google Maps)
Central Park Zoo
Philadelphia Zoo (Google Maps)
Philadelphia Zoo

In 1907, the German entrepreneur Carl Hagenbeck founded the Tierpark Hagenbeck in Stellingen, now a quarter of Hamburg. It is known for being the first zoo to use open enclosures surrounded by moats, rather than barred cages, to better approximate animals’ natural environments.

Tierpark Hagenbeck (Birds Eye)
Tierpark Hagenbeck

When ecology emerged as a matter of public interest in the 1970s, a few zoos began to consider making conservation their central role, with Gerald Durrell of the Jersey Zoo, George Rabb of Brookfield Zoo, and William Conway of the Bronx Zoo (Wildlife Conservation Society) leading the discussion.

Jersey Zoological Park (Google Maps)
Jersey Zoological Park

Brookfield Zoo (Google Maps)
Brookfield Zoo
Bronx Zoo (Google Maps)
Bronx Zoo

Because they wanted to stress conservation issues, many large zoos stopped the practice of having animals perform tricks for visitors. The Detroit Zoo, for example, stopped its elephant show in 1969, and its chimpanzee show in 1983, acknowledging that the trainers had probably abused the animals to get them to perform.

Detroit Zoo water tower (Birds Eye)
Detroit Zoo water tower

Open-Range Zoos

Zoo animals usually live in enclosures that attempt to replicate their natural habitats, for the benefit of the animals and the visitors. Some zoos keep fewer animals in larger, outdoor enclosures, confining them with moats and fences, rather than in cages. Safari parks, also known as zoo parks and lion farms, allow visitors to drive through them and come in close contact with the animals.

The first of this kind of zoo was Whipsnade Park in Bedfordshire, England, opened by the Zoological Society of London in 1931, and covering 600 acres.

Whipsnade Wildlife Park (Google Maps)
Whipsnade Wildlife Park

Since the early 1970s, a 1,800 acre park in the San Pasqual Valley near San Diego has featured the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, run by the Zoological Society of San Diego.

San Diego Zoo Safari Park (Google Maps)
San Diego Zoo Safari Park

One of two state-supported zoo parks in North Carolina is the 2,000-acre North Carolina Zoo in Asheboro.

North Carolina Zoological Park (Google Maps)
North Carolina Zoological Park

The 500-acre Werribee Open Range Zoo in Melbourne, Australia, displays animals living in a savannah.

Werribee Open Range Zoo (Google Maps)
Werribee Open Range Zoo

Roadside zoos

Roadside zoos are found throughout North America, particularly in remote locations. They are small, unregulated, for-profit zoos, often intended to attract visitors to some other facility, such as a gas station.

Petting Zoos

A petting zoo, also called children’s farms or children’s zoos, features a combination of domestic animals and wild species that are docile enough to touch and feed. To ensure the animals’ health, the food is supplied by the zoo, either from vending machines or a kiosk nearby.

Tractor on Safari in the Reston Petting Zoo (Birds Eye)
Tractor on Safari in the Reston Petting Zoo

Animal Theme Parks

An animal theme park is a combination of an amusement park and a zoo, mainly for entertaining and commercial purposes. Marine mammal parks such as Sea World and Marineland are more elaborate dolphinariums keeping whales, and containing additional entertainment attractions. Another kind of animal theme park contains more entertainment and amusement elements than the classical zoo, such as a stage shows, roller coasters, and mythical creatures.

Busch Gardens Tampa Bay (Google Maps)
Busch Gardens Tampa Bay

Disney World - Animal Kingdom (Google Maps)
Disney World - Animal Kingdom
Flamingo Land (Bing Maps)
Flamingo Land

Six Flags Discovery Kingdom (Birds Eye)
Six Flags Discovery Kingdom