Tuesday, May 7, 2019

The History of Zoos

By Michelle Shocklee

Hubby and I visited the Nashville zoo last weekend to celebrate our 32nd wedding anniversary! Some folks may not find that as the most romantic place to go, but we enjoyed seeing the animals and spending time together. It also got me thinking about zoos in general and the history behind them.

Zoos haven't always looked the way they do today. The first "zoos" were actually private collections of animals owned by the elite. These menageries, as they were called, belonged to those individuals who wished to show off their wealth and power.

Queen Hatshepsut, zoo owner
The earliest known zoo was recently discovered during excavations in Egypt. Dating back to 3500 BC, the remains of hippos, elephants, baboons, and wildcats have been found. Queen Hatshepsut is said to have established a zoo during her reign as the third female Pharaoh of Egypt around 1490 BC. 

Medieval Europe continued the tradition of maintaining collections of wild animals by some monarchs, monasteries, and municipalities.  Records of expeditions to distant places exist where exotic animals such as giraffes, elephants, bears, dolphins, and birds were sought. I was pleased to read that ancient zoo owners employed animal handlers to make sure their animals thrived and reproduced.

Ancient Egyptian wall art with giraffe, baboon, and monkeys

Zoos also existed in later civilizations, including China, Greece, and Rome. The Aztec emperor Montezuma II, in what is today Mexico, maintained one of the earliest animal collections in the Western Hemisphere. It was destroyed by Hernan Cortes during the Spanish conquest in 1520.

Royal menagerie
Henry I created what was effectively England’s first zoo in 1110, when he had a wall built to enclose his collection of animals at Woodstock, Oxfordshire. Among the animals on display were lions, tigers, porcupines, and camels.  

A century later, it was moved to the Tower of London where it remained for 600 years. Exotic animals were often given as royal gifts. In 1235, Henry III received three lions from Emperor Frederick II. He was also given a polar bear, which was allowed to swim in the Tower moat, and in 1255 the King of France gave him the first elephant to be seen in Britain since Roman times. In 1832, after a string of incidents where the animals escaped and attacked each other, visitors, and staff, the Duke of Wellington – Constable of the Tower – ordered the animals to be moved to their current home in Regent’s Park.

Victorian Zoo

The first modern zoo, built in 1793, opened in Paris, France. The menageries of French aristrocrats, including the king and queen, were taken by leaders of the French Revolution and relocated to the Ménagerie du Jardin des Plantes.

The first zoo in America was established in Philadelphia. Chartered on March 21, 1859, its opening was delayed due to the Civil War. On July 1, 1874, the zoo officially opened with 1,000 animals on exhibit. Three thousand visitors paid twenty-five cents each to tour the 33-acre zoo where they were treated to first-time views of buffalo, deer, foxes, wolves, and monkeys, as well as 67 bird species and 15 reptiles. By 1876, zoo attendance increased to over 680,000 visitors annually, including President Ulysses S. Grant. 

Zoos shifted their focus to conservation during the 1970s, a theme that thankfully continues today. Most zoos are home to animals considered endangered of extinction as well as animals rarely seen in the wild. 

Hubby and I thoroughly enjoyed our trip to the zoo! Your turn! When is the last time you visited the zoo? Which zoo was it and what is your favorite animal?

Michelle Shocklee is the award-winning author of The Planter's Daughter and The Widow of Rose Hill. Her historical novella set in the New Mexico Territory is included in The Mail-Order Brides Collection. Michelle and her husband of thirty-two years make their home in Tennessee. Connect with her at www.MichelleShocklee.com.


Widowed during the war, Natalie Ellis finds herself solely responsible for Rose Hill plantation. When Union troops arrive with a proclamation freeing the slaves, all seems lost. How can she run the plantation without slaves? In order to save her son’s inheritance she strikes a deal with the arrogant, albeit handsome, Colonel Maish. In exchange for use of her family’s property, the army will provide workers to bring in her cotton crop. But as her admiration for the colonel grows, a shocking secret is uncovered. Can she trust him with her heart and her young, fatherless son?



  1. The last zoo I may have visited was over 30 years ago in Washington, DC, I believe, but while it isn't a zoo but rather a sanctuary, my favorite place to see wild animals is a little place in Maine called Dew Haven. One would never suspect there to be a home for lions, tigers, bears and many more species in the small community where they live, but it's a wonderful place. There was a TV show called Yankee Jungle that was filmed onsite there.

  2. Connie, Dew Haven sounds wonderful! If I'm ever up that way, I'd love to visit it. Thanks for sharing! Have a great day!