Oldest Zoos in the United States

10 Oldest Zoos in the United States

The title of the oldest/first zoo in the United States is hotly contested. The Philadelphia Zoo is widely cited as the first zoo in the country, but a handful of cities in other states had set up menageries years earlier. By the time the Philadelphia Zoo had opened in 1875, these city park menageries had sizable animal collections numbering in the hundreds, which makes them count as early zoos. Through our research, we’ve compiled this list by what we believe is the correct order, which may contradict with what some of these zoos believe.

10. Oregon Zoo

Year Opened: 1888
Location:  Portland, Oregon
Land Area:  64 acres (26 ha)
Number of Animals:  1,800
Number of Species:  232

Oregon Zoophoto source:  Wikimedia Commons

The Oregon Zoo is the oldest zoo in the U.S. west of the Mississippi. The zoo’s origins began in 1882 when Richard Knight, an English immigrant, set up a shop near the docks along the Willamette River. For whatever reason, Knight took in the animals that sailors had acquired during their travels and soon the pharmacy was home to parakeets, monkeys, and other small animals.

Then Knight acquired two bears and he wrote to the mayor of Portland asking if the city was interested in the animals before he sent them elsewhere. The city gave Knight two circus cages and told him that he could set them up in City Park (now Washington Park). After awhile, Knight decided he could no longer care for the bears and told the mayor that he wanted to gift the grizzly bear to the city and thus the Portland Zoo, now the Oregon Zoo, was born on November 7, 1988.


9. Cleveland Metroparks Zoo

Year Opened: 1882
Location:  Cleveland, Ohio
Land Area:  183 acres (74 ha)
Number of Animals:  3,000
Number of Species:  600+

photo source:  Flickr via Tim Evanson

The Cleveland Metroparks Zoo opened in 1882 after Jeptha H. Wade donated 73-acres of land and 14 American deer to the City of Cleveland. The zoo was originally located near Wade Oval in Cleveland’s University Circle, but was moved to its present location in the early 1900s to make way for the Cleveland Museum of Art. As the zoo expanded, it added animals not native to the area, including monkeys, sea lions, and its first Asian elephant in 1940.

In 1957, the Cleveland Zoological Society was created and took over control of Cleveland Metroparks Zoo. The City of Cleveland transferred ownership of the Zoo to the Cleveland Metropolitan Park District in 1968 and the Cleveland Zoological Society transferred management of the Zoo to Cleveland Metroparks in 1975.


8. Maryland Zoo in Baltimore

Year Opened: 1876
Location:  Baltimore, Maryland
Land Area:  135+ acres (54.63+ ha)
Number of Animals:  2,000+
Number of Species:  about 200

photo source:  Wikimedia Commons

The Maryland Zoo in Baltimore was opened in 1876 and originally called the Baltimore Zoo – the name was changed in 2004. While this list proves otherwise, the Maryland Zoo claims that it is the third oldest zoo in the U.S. behind the Philadelphia and Cincinnati zoos. According to the Maryland Zoo its early beginnings date back to 1862, when many animals were donated to Druid Hill Park for public display.

The Maryland Zoological Society was established in 1967 and has had full operational control of the Maryland Zoo, under a lease agreement with the State of Maryland, since 1984. One of the Maryland Zoo’s newest attractions is the Penguin Coast, which houses over 80 endangered species of African penguins. The Penguin House received the AZA ( Association of Zoos and Aquariums) 2016 Award for Exhibit Design.


7. Binghamton Zoo at Ross Park

Year Opened: 1875
Location:  Binghamton, New York
Land Area:  Unspecified – Ross Park is 90 acres (36 ha)
Number of Animals:  Unspecified
Number of Species:  100+

Binghamton Zoo at Ross Parkphoto source:  Wikimedia Commons

Binghamton Zoo at Ross Park in New York believes that it is the fifth oldest zoo in the United States, after the Philadelphia Zoo, Lincoln Park Zoo, the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden, and the Buffalo Zoo. The Binghamton Zoo opened in 1875 after 90 acres of land were donated by wealthy businessman Erastus Ross, who wanted the land to be used as a public park.

Unfortunately, unlike the other zoos on this list, the Binghamton Zoo was not very popular and the zoo began to decline. However, in 1966, concerned community members formed the Southern Tier Zoological Society. A few years later, the City of Binghamton finally allotted money for the zoo’s maintenance and operation of the Binghamton Zoo was turned over to the Zoological Society in 1977.


6. Buffalo Zoo

Year Opened: 1875
Location:  Buffalo, New York
Land Area:  23.5 acres (9.5 ha)
Number of Animals:  1,200
Number of Species:  Unspecified

Buffalo Zoophoto source:  Wikimedia Commons

According to the Buffalo Zoo, it traces its history to 1870 when a pair of deer were gifted to the City of Buffalo. Initially, the deer were housed in Delaware Park and more animals were added to the collection. In 1875, the first permanent zoo building was erected and the Buffalo Zoological Gardens were officially opened – the Buffalo Zoo says it is the the country’s third oldest zoo.

The Buffalo Zoo’s collection of animals quickly grew and in 1895, Frank J. Thompson was hired as the zoo’s first curator. The Zoological Society of Buffalo was founded in 1931 and operation of the Buffalo Zoo was turned over to them in 1973.


5. Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden

Year Opened: 1875
Location:  Cincinnati, Ohio
Land Area:  75 acres (30 ha)
Number of Animals:  1,896
Number of Species:  500+

Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Gardenphoto source:  Wikimedia Commons

The Zoological Society of Cincinnati was established in 1873 and the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden was opened two years later. Due to this, the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden says that it is the second oldest zoo in the United States, behind the Philadelphia Zoo. The Cincinnati Zoo’s Reptile House was built in 1875 and is the oldest zoo building still used for its original purpose.

Recently, the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden launched a $150 million capital campaign by 2025 to update and expand its enclosures for elephants, rhinos, and kangaroos. The zoo said that the campaign was kicked off by a generous $50 million donation from Harry and Linda Fath, who had previously made contributors to the zoo’s indoor portion of Gorilla World and the Africa habitat.


4. Philadelphia Zoo

Year Opened: July 1, 1874
Location:  Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Land Area:  42 acres (17 ha)
Number of Animals:  about 1,300
Number of Species:  340+

Philadelphia Zoophoto source:  Wikimedida Commons

The Philadelphia Zoo proudly calls itself “America’s First Zoo”, even though three other menageries had already been displaying animals for several years. However, the Philadelphia Zoo can technically say its the country’s first zoo because the Philadelphia Zoological Society was set up in 1859, which was before any other menagerie had set up an official zoological society. The Philadelphia Zoological Society secured 30 acres for the zoo and gathered 813 animals to display at the zoo. They also hired architect Frank Furness to design the gates and gatehouses at the zoo’s entrance, which are still used today.

Despite all of the Philadelphia Zoological Society’s hard work, the Philadelphia Zoo did not open until 1874 because the Civil War broke out in 1861. The Philadelphia Zoo has been a hit since then and is one of the top zoos in the world at the forefront of zoological innovation.


3. Roger Williams Park Zoo

Year Opened: 1872
Location:  Providence, Rhode Island
Land Area:  40 acres (16.19 ha)
Number of Animals:  Unspecified
Number of Species:  100+

photo source:  Wikimedia Commons

A year before Roger Williams Park Zoo opened, Betsey Williams, a descendant of the founder of Providence, Roger Williams, donated her family’s 102-acre farm to the city to be used as a public space. Roger Williams Park was formed and in 1872 a small collection of animals and birds were placed in a section of the park so the public could see wildlife up close. This portion of the park was set aside to be used as the Roger Williams Park Zoo.

For the next few decades, animals continued to be displayed at the park, but the Menagerie building was not opened until 1890. The building is still standing and has been converted into the Roger Williams Park Zoo gift shop. Over the years, the Roger Williams Park Zoo has been renovated and has been an accredited zoo with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) since 1986.


2. Lincoln Park Zoo

Year Opened: 1868
Location:  Lincoln Park, Chicago, Illinois
Land Area:  35 acres (14 ha)
Number of Animals:  1,100
Number of Species:  200

Lincoln Park Zoophoto source:  Wikimedia Commons via The Erica Chang

The Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago was started in 1868 when New York’s Central Park menagerie donated two pairs of mute swans to the city. The swans were placed in Lincoln Park’s South Pond and the city decided to develop a formal animal collection. The original animal house of the Lincoln Park Zoo was built in 1870 and the zoo kept expanding in the following years.

In 1888, Cyrus DeVry became the first official director of the Lincoln Park Zoo. DeVry stayed with the zoo for more than 30 years. Although the Lincoln Park Zoo used to purchase animals from circuses (like a lot of early zoos), it became one of the first zoos to decommercialize the transfer of animals. This year, 2018, marks the 150th anniversary of the Lincoln Park Zoo, which is now one of the best zoos in the country. The Lincoln Park Zoo is also one of the only zoos in the United States that has free admission and relies on donations to stay open.


1. Central Park Zoo

Year Opened: 1864
Location:  Central Park, New York City, New York
Land Area:  6.5 acres (2.6 ha)
Number of Animals:  Unspecified
Number of Species:  150+

photo source:  Wikimedia Commons

The Central Park Zoo started out accidentally when a park messenger boy, Phillip Holmes, was left with a bear cub in the late 1850s. Holmes took it upon himself to care for the bear and in the park and soon more eccentric New Yorks dropped off their unwanted pets at the Arsenal, Central Park’s headquarters.

In 1861, the State Legislature allowed a portion of the park’s land to be set aside for a zoological garden. A few years later in 1864, an official menagerie was established just behind the Aresenal. This makes Central Park the oldest zoo in the United States.

Despite its popularity with the public, the menagerie wasn’t the best environment for the animals. In 1934, Parks Commissioner Robert Moses decided to establish an actual zoo that would be better for the animals and it opened at the end of that year.

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