Discover the Oldest Zoos in America

Written by Kyle Glatz
Published: November 12, 2022
© Everett Collection/Shutterstock.com
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To some people, zoos are facilities that educate the public about animals and provide entertainment to visitors. However, they also serve more important purposes as a place to conduct valuable research and aid in the conservation efforts of troubled species. Just as the purpose of zoos has evolved over the years, so have the facilities themselves. Today, we’re going to explore the oldest zoos in America.

This article will explore some of the oldest zoos, their locations, and fun facts about them!

The 10 Oldest Zoos in America

Zoos were not always as widespread as they are today. Even in modern times, obtaining and safely keeping animals is no small feat. It was even more complex and dangerous in the past. Fewer animal experts were available in the past. In addition, proper animal housing didn’t have the same benefits and safety measures found today.

Keep in mind that some of these zoos’ operating dates are disputed; the below list might not be the precise order of their openings. Let’s explore some of the oldest zoos based on available records without further ado. 

So, let’s look at 10 of the oldest zoos in America. You’ll see how much time has passed between openings and which ones are still in operation today!

10.  Oregon Zoo (Formerly Metro Washington Park Zoo)

Portland, Oregon: October 11, 2019: The Oregon Zoo in the city of Portland, Oregon. The Oregon Zoo has 1,800 animals.
The Oregon Zoo has 1,800 animals.

©Michael Gordon/Shutterstock.com

LocationYear Opened
Portland, Oregon1888

The Oregon Zoo was originally a menagerie of animals in the personal care of Richard Knight. This pharmacist took animals from sailors trying to offload the creatures. He gifted a grizzly bear to the Portland City Council on November 7, 1888, the official start of the zoo at City Park. 

Charles Myers became the first zookeeper in the same year. By the year 1894, the zoo had over 300 different animals!

9. Cleveland Metroparks Zoo

LocationYear Opened
Cleveland, Ohio1882

Originally called the Cleveland Zoological Park, this zoo opened in 1882 at the present-day site of the Cleveland Museum of Art. The zoo took various local animals and displayed them for their customers. The zoo expanded, bringing in foreign animals like elephants and monkeys.

Today, the zoo is home to over 600 species of animals numbering over 3,000 total creatures!

8. Maryland Zoo (Formerly Baltimore City Zoo)

A female lion yawning, at Maryland zoo, Baltimore 2021
A female lion yawning, at Maryland zoo in Baltimore.

©Mickey Mehari/Shutterstock.com

LocationYear Opened
Baltimore, Maryland1876

The Baltimore City Zoo was founded on April 7, 1876. Some trace its origins to 1860 when the Druid Hill Park’s superintendent began caring for animals donated by residents of Baltimore. Today, the zoo contains over 2,000 animals. It has been accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums for its ongoing conservation efforts. The zoo had financial trouble in the early 2000s but made a remarkable comeback in the early 2020s.

7. Ross Park Zoo

LocationYear Opened
Binghamton, New York1875

Ross Park Zoo bills itself as America’s 5th zoo, but it opened the same year as the Buffalo Zoo and the Cincinnati Zoo. Thus, it could be tied for 5th overall on our list. This zoo was built on land donated to the cause by a man named Erastus Ross.

A large picnic to celebrate the park’s creation occurred on August 27, 1875, but no animals were mentioned. Thus, this probably wasn’t a zoo when it opened in 1875. If animals were present, they didn’t come until later in the year. In 1887, trollies were introduced to the area, allowing more people to see the animals. These days, the zoo focuses on teaching stewardship and conserving the surrounding area.

6. Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden

LocationYear Opened
Cincinnati, Ohio1875

The Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden were founded in 1873. They became accessible to the public on September 18, 1875. This zoo started with elk, buffalo, a hyena, an elephant, several hundred birds, grizzly bears, monkeys, and more. Over the years, it continued to grow. Today, this zoo is recognized as one of the best in the United States in the present for its wide variety of animals, breeding programs, research, and conservation efforts.

5. Buffalo Zoo

LocationYear Opened
Buffalo, New York1875

The Buffalo Zoo was opened in 1875 after a furrier donated a pair of deer to the City of Buffalo. The zoo had sheep, a couple of bison, elk, and other animals.

Buffalo zoo started to expand in 1890 when a greater awareness of the zoo and its mission began to increase animal donations, necessitating additional buildings to house the new animals. Today, the zoo continues to undergo renovations and expansions.

4. The Philadelphia Zoo

LocationYear Opened
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania1859 (Opened 1874)

Some claim that the Philadelphia Zoo is the oldest in America, but it’s not. The zoo was chartered in March 1859, but it didn’t get to open its doors until July 1, 1874, due to the Civil War raging throughout the country.

If you had gone there in 1859, you wouldn’t have seen many animals. It was a barren land. That’s why awarding the oldest zoo spot to the Philadelphia Zoo is controversial.

The Philadelphia Zoo is the nation’s first true zoo since it was planned and laid out to be a zoo and didn’t spring up randomly like others. Still, Philadelphia doesn’t qualify for the first prize if we’re counting the oldest zoos by opening date with animals. 

The Philadelphia Zoo has been known for its cutting-edge animal care, top-tier enclosures, and conservation methods since its beginnings. This zoo is still operating today, and it has grown quite a bit since it first started running.

3. Roger Williams Park Zoo

LocationYear Opened
Providence, Rhode Island1872

The Roger Williams Park Zoo first opened its doors in 1872. It was home to several species of small animals like anteaters, peacocks, raccoons, and others. The zoo quickly grew and is now an accredited AZA and American Humane-certified member. The zoo hosts many events in its pursuit of conserving wildlife and wild places. They also spend a lot of time educating and convincing others to join their cause.

2. Lincoln Park Zoo

LocationYear Opened
Chicago, Illinois1868

Like other members of this list, the Lincoln Park Zoo was hardly a proper zoo by modern standards in 1868 when it first opened. The Central Park Board of Commissioners’ donation of a few pairs of mute swans helped jumpstart this zoo. By 1870, other people donated animals to the zoo, such as elk, puma, eagles, wolves, and more. The zoo constructed its first animal house in the same year.

The Lincoln Park Zoo got its first bear in 1874 from the Philadelphia Zoo. Also, the first American bison born in captivity was born at this zoo in 1884. Nowadays, the Lincoln Park Zoo has 200 species of animals, with 1,100 animals within its walls.

1. Central Park Zoo

The seal pool at the Central Park Zoo, New York, NY
The seal pool at the Central Park Zoo, New York, NY.

©Everett Collection/Shutterstock.com

LocationYear Opened
New York City, New York1864

The Central Park Zoo is the oldest in America. The original zoo was a menagerie where people started dropping off their unwanted animals in 1859. The Central Park Zoo was not designed like the Philadelphia Zoo. However, it grew in popularity.

This zoo obtained its charter in 1864. The zoo housed over 400 animals when it opened. Thus, the Central Park Zoo received its charter later than the Philadelphia Zoo. Still, it had hundreds of animals in it when the Philadelphia Zoo opened in 1874.

Now that we’ve looked at the oldest zoos in America, hopefully, you can see why identifying the single oldest is difficult. Some of these zoos were hardly zoos when they opened. Others were founded a long time before they became actual zoos. This is an excellent place to start when considering where zoos began in the U.S.

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The Featured Image

The seal pool at the Central Park Zoo, New York, NY
© Everett Collection/Shutterstock.com

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About the Author

I'm a freelance writer with 8 years of experience. I've written in a variety of niches such as video games, animals, and managed service providers. I graduated from Rowan University in 2014 with degrees in English and Education. When I'm not working, I enjoy playing video games, reading, and writing for fun.

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Sources
  1. Philadelphia Zoo, Available here: https://www.philadelphiazoo.org/about-the-zoo/
  2. Central Park, Available here: https://www.centralpark.com/things-to-do/central-park-zoo
  3. Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden, Available here: https://cincinnatizoo.org/about-us/history-and-vision/
  4. Roger Williams Park Zoo, Available here: https://www.rwpzoo.org/about-rwp-zoo/
  5. Buffalozoo, Available here: https://buffalozoo.org/about/#history
  6. Maryland Zoo, Available here: https://www.marylandzoo.org/about-us/zoo-history/
  7. Ross Park Zoo, Available here: https://rossparkzoo.org/about/