Zoo Was First—New York or Philly?

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During my interview with Corbin Maxey, he asked me what the first zoo in the United States was, and while I answered the Philadelphia Zoo, I have been second-guessing my answer ever since. I don’t claim to be great at math, but 1864 is older than 1874, right? So why does the Philadelphia Zoo, which opened its gates in 1874, claim to be the first U.S. zoo when Central Park Zoo opened ten years earlier?

Don’t get me wrong, this debate is more complicated than “this zoo opened before the other, so therefore. . . .” It’s an intriguing, classic “New York vs. Philadelphia” rivalry when you take a close look at the zoos’ histories. I’m going to lay out some evidence and let my readers decide which they think deserves the actual title of “America’s First Zoo.”

First, let’s start with the definition of zoo . . . . Merriam-Webster defines it as “a facility with usually indoor and outdoor settings where living, typically wild animals are kept especially for public exhibition [also called zoological garden, zoological park]”. It’s a definition open to interpretation, so this might not be much help in our final decision. To add to the complication, the word menagerie was often used to describe collections of animals for exhibition that were more temporary or private in nature. According to historian Vernon N. Kisling Jr., there wasn’t a clear distinction between a zoological garden and a menagerie. “In America the word menagerie assumed a negative connotation in the common usage, implying improperly kept, caged animals, despite its continued use at many well-respected institutions, primarily in Europe” (Hoage and Deiss, 114). In fact, when it opened in 1864, the collection in Central Park was known as “Central Park Menagerie” until 1934, but more on that later.

One other consideration that some scholars mention when distinguishing zoos from menageries is that zoos tend to follow a more formal system of grouping the animals in their collections. For example, Carl Linnaeus’s system of classification (species and subspecies) developed in the 1700s was often used for logically grouping animals for display and also for scientific research and educational purposes.

Before Central Park Zoo opened during the U.S. Civil War, zoos were already well established and thriving in many large European cities (Vienna 1752, London 1826, Dublin 1831, Berlin 1844). Before its zoos opened, Europe was known for its menageries, used for scientific study (such as the Jardin des Plantes in Paris) or to showcase royal collections (from Roman emperors to King Louis XIV’s menagerie at Versailles). With the heightened interest in scientific inquiry and the increase in urban populations, Europe possessed the interested population and wealth to establish larger zoological collections and to import rare and exotic species. The United States, on the other hand, was still a frontier country with mostly agricultural interests. In this atmosphere, the traveling circuses and menageries were much more popular. According to Vicki Croke, “Occasionally someone would display a bear at a tavern, and by 1720, sea captains were bringing exotic animals to big ports like New York and Boston. By 1768, Americans had seen a lion, a polar bear, and a leopard in shows. In 1789, a tiger, orangutan, sloth, baboon, buffalo, and reptiles were put on display in New York. Traveling shows and menageries were flourishing here by 1813, bringing in the country’s first zebra (1805), rhinoceros (1826), giraffe (1837), and hippo (1850)” (143–44).

Advertisement for a traveling menagerie in the Philadelphia Inquirer, April 1, 1868.
Advertisement for a traveling menagerie in the Philadelphia Inquirer, April 1, 1868.

Opening permanent collections or zoos was not a possibility until the country’s post–Civil War economy became more industrialized and the population more urbanized, cultured, and wealthier. Americans looking to establish zoos turned to Europe for ideas.

Central Park Zoo

The Central Park Menagerie began in much the same fashion as most smaller American zoos: with one or two animals on display in a park. In Central Park’s case, it was a bear cub tied to a tree in 1859 and a ring-tailed monkey the next year—located near the Arsenal, on the edge of park located at Fifth Avenue. Unwanted pets and abandoned circus animals started arriving at the beginning of the 1860s from a variety of people, from prominent figures to children. These animals were placed under the care of a menagerie keeper, Phil Holmes, who managed the collection for an impressive fifty-three years. Animals donated included a deer, peacock, goose, porcupine, alligator, pelican, prairie wolf, fox, and a boa constrictor. Large or small, the Central Park Planning Commission recorded in detail all of these donations in its annual reports. Out of these donations a spontaneous collection grew.

In 1860, the American Zoological and Botanical Society was created by a group of wealthy New Yorkers (including Frederick Law Olmsted, the designer of Central Park) with the goal of establishing a zoo in New York City. By 1862—during the Civil War—the state legislature authorized sixty acres in Central Park to be set aside for the construction of a future “zoological and botanical garden,” which would later become the Central Park Zoo. However, since the zoo’s site was not yet formally established, the animals were kept on the Central Park Mall with no permanent home.

In 1864, the New York assembly established a charter to start a formal zoo. Its actual opening date is a bit suspect, because by then, the park had over 400 animals, with more than 250 animals donated in 1864 and 1865 alone. (In 1865 General William T. Sherman contributed three African Cape buffaloes he had inherited during his march through Georgia.) A permanent site for the zoo continued to be debated, with up to twelve sites eventually considered for the zoo. As the collection continued to expand, some animals were moved to the basement of the Arsenal in 1865 and eventually took up permanent residence behind the Arsenal, with a deer park located at the present site of the Metropolitan Museum. The menagerie was the most popular attraction in the Central Park, especially after a fire in 1865 destroyed the animal exhibit operated by P. T. Barnum at his American Museum. (Barnum had a good relationship with the zoo and even housed his circus animals there during the winter.)

Image published in Harper's Weekly, October 13, 1866. Animals pictured: 1) kinkajou, raccoon, opossum, American bears, badger; 2) harpy eagle and American eagle; 3) baboon, monkeys, squirrels, peccary, Guinea pigs, prairie dogs, rabbits; 4) prairie wolves; 5) camels, buffaloes, sheep, deer; 6) ocelot, silver-gray fox, Eskimo dogs.
Image published in Harper’s Weekly, October 13, 1866. Animals pictured: 1) kinkajou, raccoon, opossum, American bears, badger; 2) harpy eagle and American eagle; 3) baboon, monkeys, squirrels, peccary, Guinea pigs, prairie dogs, rabbits; 4) prairie wolves; 5) camels, buffaloes, sheep, deer; 6) ocelot, silver-gray fox, Eskimo dogs.

An article in the New York Times in 1867 outlined the year’s progress with enthusiasm and purpose—a call to establish an official zoological garden. “It is not proposed to make the collection scientifically complete, but to establish it upon a scale of sufficient breadth to make it a source of interest to the public, and even to serve as a valuable adjunct in educational matters for the children of our common schools.” Another report that year noted that the collection had grown to 879 (511 mammals, 339 birds, and 29 reptiles). However, such proposals to establish a zoo on a grand scale continued to stall; no one could agree on a location. Meanwhile, the collection grew, and the housing was becoming more and more inadequate.

Description of the Central Park menagerie, New York Times (July 18, 1868).
Description of the Central Park Menagerie, New York Times (July 18, 1868).

In 1870, when Tammany Hall took control of the Central Park Commission, it mandated that the Central Park Menagerie begin buying its own animals rather than take donations, in attempts to slow down the growth of the collection and to focus more on exotic animals. Four years earlier, the park witnessed the birth of a South American peccary and a Cape buffalo, and in 1869 the acquisition of one Indian and one African elephant, so clearly the collection was more than just unwanted pets after the Civil War.

The menagerie became popular because of its free admission, allowing those who could not afford to travel to Europe or to take their family to the circus to witness these wild and exotic animals; by 1873, a reported 2.5 million annual visitors enjoyed the menagerie. That year the first formal report of its activities was sent to the park superintendent, and a number of significant births were reported in the New York Times: two lions, one leopard, two pumas, one camel, and one hyena. That year also saw the arrival of three giraffes, two sea lions, a manatee, and a Malayan tapir, which is reportedly the first of its species to be imported to the United States. This was still one year before the Philadelphia Zoo opened its gates.

Under the direction of William Conklin, the zoo’s director, the first permanent building was constructed behind the Arsenal in 1875. The zoo never expanded to ten, let alone the sixty acres allotted, but it entertained many visitors in Central Park. And still, the collection grew. Conklin was the agent of Carl Hagenbeck, a prominent animal dealer in Europe, and many animals for sale were housed in Central Park, many of which went on exhibit permanently.

In 1899, New York finally received its large metropolitan zoo when the Bronx Zoo opened its gates after four years of planning by the New York Zoological Society and with almost 850 animals on display opening day. The collection included many large animals that were lacking adequate living quarters in Central Park. Its first director was William T. Hornaday, who was considered the Founding Father of the Smithsonian’s National Zoo.

Sheep on display in Central Park, circa 1904. Source: 1904 Department of Parks Annual Report and available at https://www.nycgovparks.org/about/history/zoos/central-park-zoo.
Sheep on display in Central Park, circa 1904. Source: 1904 Department of Parks Annual Report and available at https://www.nycgovparks.org/about/history/zoos/central-park-zoo.

Champions of the Central Park Menagerie had been complaining about the housing conditions and lack of resources for years. In 1934, this was finally addressed as part of a large initiative to revitalize New York’s city parks led by Commissioner Robert Moses. The new six-acre park, officially named Central Park Zoo, was funded and constructed in large part by the Civil Works Administration and Works Progress Administration (WPA). The brick and limestone buildings formed a quadrangle around a sea lion pool, which still exists today. Also built were classrooms, an auditorium, and concession stands for visitors. The zoo underwent another five-year, $35 million renovation ending in 1988, and today the zoo is part of the Wildlife Conservation Society, which is headquartered at the Bronx Zoo and oversees the New York Aquarium and the Prospect Park and Queens Zoos. It currently specializes in waterfowl (23 species) and penguins (4 species).

Philadelphia Zoo

The Philadelphia Zoo had a completely different beginning than the Central Park Zoo. It was chartered by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the Zoological Society of Philadelphia established on March 21, 1859, but its opening was delayed by the Civil War until 1874. In fact, if you go by dates of opening, Philadelphia is the fourth oldest zoo, even though it claims to be the oldest based on its charter date. Central Park Zoo (1861), Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago (1868), and the Roger Williams Park Zoo in Rhode Island (1872) opened before 1874.

The original charter stated, “The purpose of this incorporation shall be the purchase and collection of living wild and other animals, for the purpose of public exhibition at some suitable place in the City of Philadelphia, for the instruction and recreation of the people.” Clearly the intention of the founders—a group of wealthy and powerful Philadelphians—was not a zoo just for pleasure but also for scientific study. This makes sense given that Philadelphia was extremely plugged in to the scientific and intellectual society at that time. It was the location of the first American scientific society (American Philosophical Society in 1743), first medical school (College of Philadelphia in 1765), the first botanical garden (Bartram Botanical Garden in 1731), and the second natural history museum (Peale Museum in 1784), not to mention the Ben Franklin Institute in 1824 and the Academy of Natural Sciences in 1812. Philadelphia seemed like the perfect place to start a zoological garden on the scale of the great European zoos.

So, what happened between the end of the Civil War and 1874 that it took almost ten years to open the Philadelphia Zoo? Good question, because the idea wasn’t even revived until 1872, after Dr. William Camac, founder and first president of Zoological Society of Philadelphia (ZSP), returned from a trip to Europe where he visited zoos in London and Paris and became energized to renew the effort in his hometown.

What else happened is that Philadelphia experienced a population boom, increasing by 50 percent in 1870. A decade earlier, it already established itself as the nation’s financial center and boasted the fourth largest population in the world behind New York City, London, and Paris. Back in 1859 there was little enthusiasm and funding to begin construction, and the location inadequate, but now the city was poised to focus on starting this major project to boost the civic pride that existed after the war.

Dr. Camac was only able to convene eight of the twenty-seven original charter members, but as Clark DeLeon notes in his book, “they were a committed and enthusiastic eight” (35). One of the first tasks was to find a better location for the zoo than what had originally been planned. A report in the Philadelphia Evening Telegraph (January 17, 1873) described the decision: “For the purposes of this garden the park commissioners have set apart 32 acres in the West [Fairmount] Park, just above the Girard Avenue Bridge. The location is a very suitable one, and if the garden is established and stocked with rare and curious animals, it will add very greatly to the attractions of our beautiful public pleasure grounds. The zoological garden in Central Park, New York, is one of the most interesting features of that delightful place of public resort, and a similar one here will be equally well appreciated.” So, they wanted to model their grounds after the Central Park Zoo but didn’t want to acknowledge it as the country’s first? When a former zoo president was asked about this, he scoffed, “One swan in a pond and one bear on a chain do not a zoo make.” As DeLeon notes, “Philadelphia was the first zoo worthy of the name.”

The Solitude house on zoo grounds. Source: Wikipedia
The parcel of land included the Solitude mansion, built by the grandson of William Penn in 1784, which housed the zoo’s executive offices for several years. Source: Wikipedia

Meeting weekly, the ZSP also began soliciting members to raise funds to pay off $150,000 in shareholder loans. For $50 one could purchase a life membership and $10 ($5 after the first year) for an annual one. Through their efforts, the loan was paid off by March 1974, four months before opening day.

Article in the Philadelphia Inquirer (July 19, 1873). Regarding the last sentence, Quaker Alfred Cope made it a condition that he would only donate the money if “all malt, vinous or spirituous liquors … be forever excluded from the premises.”
Article in the Philadelphia Inquirer (July 19, 1873). Regarding the last sentence, Quaker Alfred Cope made it a condition that he would only donate the money if “all malt, vinous or spirituous liquors … be forever excluded from the premises.”

Did I mention they needed animals? Dr. Camac hired Frank Thompson, a renowned naturalist, animal collector, and explorer who was living in Australia to become the zoo’s first superintendent. Before arriving in Philadelphia, Thompson collected many animals in Australia and India. According to DeLeon, he “returned with a variety of colorful and exotic birds from the Southwest Pacific as well as a rare Tasmanian devil plus a number of wallabies, kangaroos, wombats, dasyures, and dingos from Australia” (39). The ZSP also accepted some donations. One Army general shipped bears, foxes, elk, eagles, wildcats, wolverines, deer, a wolf, and a coyote from the U.S. West, and Brigham Young donated two bears. President Ulysses S. Grant donated a pair of curassows from Nicaragua.

By late March 1874, there were two hundred animals already housed in the park, and some animals were already giving birth before the gates opened in July (an elk gave birth in June). Touting the collection, the Philadelphia Inquirer wrote, “Though just in its infancy, and the really fine collection already comprised in it a mere nucleus, about which will be developed an institution that will bear comparison with the famous zoological gardens of the Old World, the pride and boast of great cities, it is, even in its present condition, a sufficient matter of congratulation, and reflects the highest credit upon those gentlemen to whose efforts its existence is due. . . .” The paper went on to describe the collection:

“The garden really already possesses some features which entitle it to notice, even beside older and more pretentious rivals. Of these the most prominent is probably the prairie dog village, something not to be found in any other zoological garden in the world. Then there are the buffalo range, the beaver pond, where the wonderful engineering operations of that intelligent and rapidly disappearing animal may be observed, the alligators, who are so generously provided with home comforts that it is scarcely probable their expatriation is very keenly felt, and the fine specimen of a grizzly bear, all distinctively American contributions” (July 1, 1874).

Announcement in the Philadelphia Inquirer (June 29, 1874), a few days before opening day.
Announcement in the Philadelphia Inquirer (June 29, 1874), a few days before opening day.

The Philadelphia Zoological Garden opened to much fanfare on July 1, 1874. Flags flew and brass bands serenaded visitors. For an admission of 25 cents (10 cents for children), around 50,000 people enjoyed the zoo in just the first month. And animals continue to arrive. A month after opening, six young giraffes from Africa joined the collection. In November, a steamship brought hyenas, leopards, monkeys, sun bears, cassowaries, parrots, Java owls, an East India yak, and many other animals. In November of that year the first lions arrived, and in January 1875 an Indian elephant named Empress settled in; she was considered the largest elephant in captivity in the world (11 feet tall and weighing 8 tons). DeLeon noted that by the end of opening year, the collection numbered 616 birds, mammals, and reptiles.

The Philadelphia Zoo on opening day, July 1, 1874. Source: philadelphiazoo.org
The Philadelphia Zoo on opening day, July 1, 1874. Source: philadelphiazoo.org

In 1875 attendance totaled 420,000 with memberships up 50 percent (770 members and 179 life members). During 1876, the country’s centennial anniversary, attendance reached 657,000; however, more visitors were expected due to the Centennial Exposition (the first World’s Fair) being held across the street from the zoo, but a heat wave hit the city. (10 million visitors still attended the exposition.)

The original bear pits, 1876. Source: Wikimedia
The original bear pits, 1876. Source: Wikimedia
Philadelphia Zoo map, 1878. Source: Harper’s New Monthly Magazine (April 1879).
Philadelphia Zoo map, 1878. Source: Harper’s New Monthly Magazine (April 1879). The review of the zoo in this issue noted that it “has the air and general appearance of famous long-established like institutions in Europe.”

After the initial excitement of the new zoo wore off, like most young zoos the Philadelphia Zoo had its struggles, with attendance dipping to about a quarter of a million for many years. It did have the advantage of being a full-fledged institution from the very beginning, with sound management, grand buildings and enclosures, and a professional staff to care for the animals. In fact, Philadelphia would become one of the more innovative zoos in the areas of animal health and nutrition. In 1901 the zoo opened the Penrose Research Laboratory to study animal health, nutrition, and husbandry—the first of its kind in a zoo. Necropsies (animal autopsies) were performed by medical doctors on all animals and detailed notes were recorded about causes of death. The lab also conducted important research into the prevention of diseases (namely tuberculosis) and studied the impact of diet on animal fertility and general animal health. As a result, changes were made to animal diets and living conditions, which vastly reduced the zoo’s mortality rate. In fact, the invention of the “zoocake” that fed many animals beginning in 1935 cut their death rate by more than half. This magical concoction included oatmeal, cod liver oil, soybeans, corn, oyster shell, and a few other ingredients. The zoo also became the first to successfully breed orangutans (1928), chimpanzees (1928), and cheetahs (1956) in the United States.

Today the 42-acre Philadelphia Zoo is home to 1,300 animals from over 300 species and visited by 1.3 million visitors per year. Some features that set it apart are its Zoo360 animal trail system that allows animals to travel above zoo grounds and its KidZooU, an innovative children’s zoo and education center.

Philadelphia Zoo sign (Image: waymarking.com)
Or was it? (Image: waymarking.com)

Comparing the Central Park and Philadelphia Zoos might be too “apples and oranges,” but perhaps after reading these histories you have an opinion on which zoo deserves the title of “America’s First”? Please cast your vote below!

Thank you for voting!


Barrow, Mark V. Jr. “Teetering on the Brink of Extinction:  The Passenger Pigeon, the Bison, and American Zoo Culture in the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries.” In The Ark and Beyond: The Evolution of Zoo and Aquarium Conservation, edited by Ben A. Minteer, Jane Meienschein, and James P. Collins. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018. 

Brown, Tim, and Scott Richardson. America’s Top 100 Zoos and Aquariums. Todmorden, UK: Independent Zoo Enthusiasts Society, 2019.

Cadwalader, Williams Biddle. Bears, Owls, Tigers and Others! Philadelphia’s Zoo, 1874–1949. New York: The Newcomen Society of North America, 1949. 

“The Central Park Menagerie.” New York Times (October 23, 1873): 2. 

Croke, Vicki. The Modern Ark: The Story of Zoos: Past, Present and Future. New York: Scribner, 1997. 

DeLeon, Clark. America’s First Zoostory: 125 Years at the Philadelphia Zoo. Virginia Beach: The Donning Company, 1999.  

Hahn, Emily. Animal Gardens. New York: Doubleday, 1967. 

Hingston, Sandy. “11 Things You Might Not Know About: The Philadelphia Zoo.” Philadelphia Magazine (December 22, 2015). https://www.phillymag.com/news/2015/12/22/philadelphia-zoo-facts/  

Hoage, Robert J. and William A. Deiss, eds. New Worlds, New Animals: From Menagerie to Zoological Park in the Nineteenth Century. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.  

Howland, Marie Stevens. “The Philadelphia Zoo.” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine (April 1879): 699712.

Kisling, Vernon, ed. Zoo and Aquarium History: Ancient Animal Collections to Zoological Gardens. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press, 2000. 

Lincoln Park Zoo timeline. https://web.archive.org/web/20151220234145/http://www.lpzoo.org/interactives/int_timeline.html  

New York City Department of Parks & Recreation. “1862 Central Park Commissioners Annual Report.” Available at http://home2.nyc.gov/html/records/pdf/govpub/4077annual_report_manhattan_central_park_1862.pdf

New York City Department of Parks & Recreation. “1864 Central Park Commissioners Annual Report.” Available at http://home2.nyc.gov/html/records/pdf/govpub/4060annual_report_manhattan_central_park_1864.pdf

New York City Department of Parks & Recreation. “1868 Central Park Commissioners Annual Report.” Available at http://home2.nyc.gov/html/records/pdf/govpub/4086annual_report_manhattan_central_park_1868.pdf

New York City Department of Parks & Recreation. “1869 Central Park Commissioners Annual Report.” Available at http://home2.nyc.gov/html/records/pdf/govpub/3999annual_report_manhattan_central_park_1869.pdf

New York City Department of Parks & Recreation. “History of Central Park Zoos.” https://www.nycgovparks.org/about/history/zoos/central-park-zoo   

Newman, Andy. “Giving Life to Central Park Zoo, One Donation at a Time.” New York Times (June 15, 2014). https://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/16/nyregion/giving-life-to-central-park-zoo-one-donation-at-a-time.html  

“Oldest Zoo Keepers Tells How He Started America’s First Menagerie in Central Park.” New York Times (March 10, 1912): SM6. 

Rosenthal, Mark, Carol Tauber, and Edward Uhlir. The Ark in the Park: The Story of the Lincoln Park Zoo. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003. 

Rumore, Kori, Ryan Marx, and Marianne Mather. “An elephant escape, Bushman, 5,000 hissing cockroaches and 150 years of animal stories inside the Lincoln Park Zoo.” Chicago Tribune (August 28, 2008). https://www.chicagotribune.com/entertainment/museums/ct-lincoln-park-zoo-history-timeline-htmlstory.html  

“A Years Progress in Central Park.” New York Times (August 11, 1867): 4.

“Zoo Minimizes Lack of Bread.” Philadelphia Inquirer (June 10, 1946): 21.

“Zoocakes Are Fed to Animals and Birds.” Wilkes-Barre Times Leader (January 31, 1962): 9.

“ZOOLOGICAL GARDENS. The Collection of Wild Animals at Central Park—Recent Additions—The Site of the Proposed Garden.” New York Times (July 18, 1868): 5.

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