Philadelphia Zoo: America’s First Zoo

In the early years of the American republic, Philadelphia, as the second-largest city, with a population over half a million, was the country’s intellectual, educational, and social capitol. It is therefore no surprise that the city was a center of scientific study, establishing a large number of universities, medical schools, and scientific institutes. And, according to their claim, the nation’s first zoo.


The Philadelphia Zoo

Early in the 19th century, Philadelphia resident Benjamin Franklin had raised the idea of a public zoological garden in the city, and when President Thomas Jefferson dispatched the Lewis and Clark expedition into the newly-purchased Louisiana Territory in 1804, one of its goals was to discover what kinds of animal life lived in the region (Jefferson was reportedly hopeful that the expedition might find still-living mammoths in the unexplored interior).

After the London Zoo opened to the public in 1847, ideas began to circulate about creating a similar zoological park in the United States. In Philadelphia, this cause was taken up by William Camac, a local doctor. On March 21, 1859, the Pennsylvania State Legislature voted to issue a charter establishing a nonprofit Philadelphia Zoological Society, with Camac as its president, for the purpose of raising public and private funds to establish a zoo in the city. It was the first zoological society in the United States (and today the Zoo still claims the title “America’s First Zoo”).

When the Civil War broke out in 1861, however, plans for a zoo had to be put on hold. It wasn’t until the 1870’s that post-war Philadelphia was finally able to begin devoting money to public works again. The Zoological Society was given 30 acres of land in Fairmount Park, along Girard Avenue, at the site of “The Solitude”, the riverside manor house built in 1784 by William Penn’s grandson John, who had moved to England and left the  home empty. It became a part of the zoo grounds. (Later, the zoo was extended to 42 acres.)

The Zoo was enclosed by a stone fence, and the Victorian stone facade columns and wrought-iron gateway, designed by local architect Frank Furness, still stand today.

The Philadelphia Zoo opened to the public on July 1, 1874. On opening day, 3,000 people paid an admission price of 25 cents for adults and 10 cents for children. Visitors could also purchase a yearly zoo membership for $10, and a lifetime membership for $50.

The original display consisted of 616 animals, including bears, deer, leopards, monkeys, bison, wolves, birds, and an Indian Elephant. Some of these had been collected in Africa and Asia by the Smithsonian Institution, which had not yet completed construction of its own National Zoo in Washington DC and loaned its animals to Philadelphia in the meantime. The new zoo was served by its own railroad station, and also by its own dock on the nearby Schuylkill River, with ferry boats arriving every fifteen minutes. In its first year of operation, the zoo attracted 228,000 visitors—almost half the city’s population.

The zoo quickly expanded, but because of its geographically small size, the Philadelphia Zoo was slow to adopt the Hagenbeck system of moated outdoor enclosures, and housed most of its animals in stone-facade Victorian-style buildings. The Bird House was opened in 1916, followed by the Elephant House in 1941 and the Carnivore House in 1951.

From the beginning, the Philadelphia Zoo made efforts to breed its animals and take a scientific approach to their care—something many other zoos were not doing at the time. The first successful births at the zoo were Red Deer and White-Tailed Deer born in 1874. The zoo was also the place for the first captive births in the US of a Chimpanzee and an Orangutan (both in 1928), the first captive-born Cheetahs in the world (in 1956), and the first Echidna bred in North America (in 1983). In 1901, Philadelphia became the first zoo in the world to build a dedicated on-site animal care veterinary center, which is still in use today. Researchers here developed a special diet for captive Flamingos, then in 1935 zoo employee Dr Ellen Corson-White developed the first specially-formulated foods for other zoo animals (called “Zoocakes”).

In 1938, the first Children’s Zoo in the US opened in Philadelphia, where young kids could see farm animals like cows and horses, and could feed and pet goats, sheep and ducks. The Children’s Zoo has since been remodeled and updated several times.

In 1976, the Philadelphia Zoo began to move away from its previous “postage-stamp collection” philosophy, and began to actively concentrate on education and conservation. The collection shrank from over 3000 individuals, most kept alone, to the current 1300, most of which are now kept in breeding groups. The zoo no longer keeps Elephants since there is not enough space for a proper paddock for them.

The zoo’s new Mission Statement emphasized “educating the public about exotic animals, promoting and participating in worldwide conservation efforts for endangered wildlife, and providing exceptional recreational opportunities for families”. An Education Department was established, which began a series of outreach programs for children, including The Treehouse exhibit (built in the original Giraffe Barn), the Rare Animal Conservation Center, and the Footprints program to educate people about the effects of global warming. A series of new open-air enclosures were also constructed to replace the old buildings: the African Plains (opened 1975), Bear Country (opened 1980), and Carnivore Kingdom (opened 1992).

In 1995, a fire broke out in the “World of Primates” building which killed 23 animals, including Gorillas, Orangutans, Gibbons, and Lemurs. As a result, the “monkey house” was replaced by the 2.5 acre open-air Primate Reserve. To make maximum use of their limited space, the Philadelphia Zoo has been a pioneer in the use of pathways and elevated “climbing trails” that allow animals like apes, monkeys and tigers to move around the zoo, from one enclosure to another. These trails lead to drinking pools, resting places, or sheltered spots, and encourage the animals to move around in their environment much as they would in the wild.

The zoo also began a number of captive-breeding and conservation projects. In 1996, Philadelphia became the first zoo in the US to exhibit endangered Giant River Otters from South America, and is so far the only zoo in the world to successfully breed them, starting in 2004. In the new Avian Center, the zoo keeps and breeds two bird species, the Guam Rail and the Guam Kingfisher, that are now extinct in the wild.

The Philadelphia Zoo has also joined with a number of global partners to help carry out other conservation efforts around the world. In Brazil, the Zoological Society is helping the Associação Mico-Leão-Dourado (Golden Lion Tamarin Association) to educate local people about the need to protect the Tamarins and to encourage local farmers to set aside areas where the Tamarins are living. The zoo has also formed programs with Amphibian Ark and the Amphibian Survival Alliance to captive-breed endangered frogs from Haiti and Ecuador. In Ecuador, the Philadelphia Zoo is working with the local zoo at Amaru to protect local habitat and establish breeding programs for endangered amphibians. To help save the frogs in Haiti, the Philadelphia Zoo’s reptile department now keeps over 1400 individuals from ten endangered species at its care center in the US, where, working with biologists from Port Au Prince, it has successfully bred nine of these species.

In 2013, conservation biologists from the zoo traveled to the tiny islands of Mauritius, in the Indian Ocean, to bring back a number of critically endangered Rodrigues Fruit Bats for study and breeding. It is estimated that fewer than 100 of these bats remain in the wild.

Other zoo projects involve partnerships with Polar Bears International to protect and preserve Polar Bear habitat, the Ongava Research Center which studies and protects Namibian Lions, and the Tuanan Orangutan Research Project and Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Program to protect Orangutans in Indonesia. Locally, the zoo also works with Philadelphia conservation groups and city officials to help restore and protect native bird habitat  in Fairmount Park.

Today, the Philadelphia Zoo gets about 1.2 million visitors per year.

2 thoughts on “Philadelphia Zoo: America’s First Zoo”

  1. Dear Mr. Flank,
    I enjoyed your post on the Philadelphia Zoo. May I ask where you found the connection between the zoo and Ben Franklin?
    “Early in the 19th century, Philadelphia resident Benjamin Franklin had raised the idea of a public zoological garden in the city.”
    I’ve scoured the indices of his collected “Works” and “Papers” and have not been able to find evidence for this. Can you point me in the right direction? I’m giving a lecture on the menagerie in antiquity at the Philly Zoo on Saturday (10/3), and I thought it might be nice to include that if I could.
    Kind regards,
    Matthew McGowan
    Dept. of Classics
    Fordham University

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