The Zoo–A Curious History

From circus menagerie to modern-day ark

My recent articles in the Albany Herald about the history of the Tift Park Zoo and my current blogs about Zoo Atlanta’s origins have whetted my appetite. So I have decided to launch a new series of blogs called The Zoo–A Curious History. Each month I will highlight a different zoo in a series of Thursday episodes.

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To understand the history of zoos in North America, we really need to begin with a look back at the traveling, tented circus, which began in America in the early years of the nineteenth century. When we think about the circus today, we imagine the big top with its 3-rings of performers. But in the early days of the circus, there was another part of the operation that was nearly as important as the performers. That was the menagerie. Early circuses included collections of animals that featured an astonishing variety of exotic beasts—animals like giraffes, hippos, and even polar bears.

By the turn of the 20th century, the economics of a traveling menagerie began to shift as zoos sprang up all over North America. The earliest ones appeared in the 1870s in Philadelphia, Cincinnati, and Chicago and by 1900 dozens of cities had their own zoos—cities like New York, Baltimore, Cleveland, Dallas, Atlanta, Milwaukee, Denver, and Toledo.

As zoos became more popular in the 1920s and 30s, monumental buildings were built to house their burgeoning animal collections. Many of the conditions for the animals in those early years were appalling. Cages were small, and animals were treated as objects of amusement. Some zoos even sold sticks so people could prod the animals into action.

After World War Two, a new emphasis was placed on sanitation and cages were lined with easy to clean ceramic tile and stainless-steel bars. But the animal collections were the same, so animals were remained in small cages. Finally, in the 1970s, all of that began to change and, as my luck would have it, that is I arrived on the scene. As I was beginning my zoo career; cities all over North America were transforming their zoos.

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Author with pronghorn ca. 1975

The San Diego zoo opened its Wild Animal Park on nearly two thousand acres of property in May 1972. Minneapolis, Minnesota completed a new 500-acre zoo in the suburb of Apple Valley May 1978. The Zoological Society of Miami Florida began construction on a 600-acre zoo in 1975. And in August 1974, I was working for the Toronto zoo as it developed its new 700-acre, $28 million zoo. And zoos that weren’t relocating were rebuilding, in cities like Tampa, Toledo, and Atlanta.

Zoos have continued to make remarkable progress since then. Michael Robinson, director of the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in the 1980s and 1990s, was an advocate for something he called the BioPark, a place that would combine elements of existing zoos, aquariums, natural history museums, and botanical gardens under one comprehensive umbrella—a concept that would be recognizable in many modern zoos.

But I am fascinated with the older stories—the unknown & untold tales of our past. So, for the next few months I plan to explore the animals, people, and communities that make up our American Zoo Story. We will travel from San Francisco to Washington, DC. We’ll look at the old zoos like Philadelphia and Lincoln Park and the not-so-old, like Tampa’s Lowry Park. The Zoo–A Curious History might even make a good podcast, depending on how many likes and followers we can generate.

Next Thursday, we will continue our look back at the curious history of an American zoo in a city where a circus came to town—and never left.

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