The oldest zoos in the world are renowned institutions, proud bastions of animal protection and conservation. Let’s not beat around the bush, though. They’re also home to some of the cutest critters on Earth.
Animals have fascinated us since the beginning of time. Cave drawings suggest that humans kept dogs as pets as far back as Paleolithic times – #dogsofinstagram in its original form.
But it wasn’t until the 18th century that the idea of public zoos really began to take hold. If you thought you were fascinated by animals, imagine seeing a monkey in 1779.
The history of zoos is at times a sad timeline in which human entertainment took priority over animal welfare. Centuries of scientific study, and a fair bit of self reflection, have led to most zoos adopting a welfare and conservation-first approach.
Thankfully, animal parks and experiences are under more scrutiny than ever before, with the welfare of animals becoming a key driver in visitors choosing where to get their fix of fantastic beasts and adorable animals.
Below are 10 of the oldest zoos in the world accredited by WAZA or EAZA, formerly home to celebrity gorillas, death-defying hippos, and fashion-influencing giraffes!
1. The Oldest Zoo in the World: Tiergarten Schönbrunn
? Opened in 1752
? Vienna, Austria
Many of the oldest known animal collections were status symbols made possible by royal wealth, so it’s no surprise that the oldest zoo on Earth has regal beginnings.
Vienna’s Tiergarten Schönbrunn is the oldest zoo in the world. It began as a royal menagerie in 1752, symbolic of imperial Austrian extravagance, and of Emperor Franz I’s keen interest in the natural world. Luckily he was much closer in name and nature to St. Francis than Joe Exotic.
His wife, and head of the Royal House of Habsburg, María Teresa, agreed to support his boyish dream to build a marvelous menagerie on one condition – that it didn’t house any animals capable of eating her children. So demanding.
Soon the grounds of Schönbrunn Palace were alive with the sounds (and likely smells) of animals procured from all over the world. Monkeys, antelopes, and all manner of colorful birds were part of the zoo’s very first collection.
It wasn’t a cheap hobby – you can imagine Franz’s disappointment when the zebra he craved proved too expensive even for the Grand Duke of Tuscany.
It wasn’t until 1779, with the opening of the Palace Gardens, that the public could see these exotic creatures in the flesh, fur and feather. Other wild wonders would find a place at Schönbrunn over the centuries, including a famous giraffe in 1828, which was so popular it influenced Viennese fashion. This probably didn’t extend to neck scarves.
Plainly, even the most well-intentioned zoologists during the 18th and 19th centuries didn’t know how to look after these animals. Plucked from their natural habitats and transported across the globe by people who knew nothing of their needs, many of the creatures lived short and stressful lives.
Luckily, a lot more is known about how to care for animals in the 21st century, and the residents of Tiergarten Schönbrunn are healthy and well-treated. The zoo is regularly voted one of the world’s best, and you can wander the park, which retains its imperial layout, to see tigers, orangutans, koalas, elephants, and even pandas on loan from China.
2. The Second Oldest Zoo in the World: Ménagerie du Jardin des Plantes
? Opened in 1794
? Paris, France
Despite inventing the word, the French are only second on this list of magical ménageries. The second oldest zoo in the world is Paris’ Ménagerie du Jardin des Plantes.
Having already been France’s premier botanical garden for 150 years, Jardin des Plantes sought to add a little fauna to its abundance of flora in 1793. A year later the gates were opened to swarms of locals aiming to get a look at some peculiar creatures.
The first animals in the park came from the unloved menagerie at Versailles, with more being brought in from the private collection belonging to the Duke of Orléans.
Within a few years there were stamping elephants, leggy ostriches, round bears, and more, accrued during Napoleon’s all-conquering travels and as gifts from well-to-do families around Europe.
In 1827, Zarafa the giraffe arrived at the park, where she would live in her rotunda – and in the hearts of Parisians – for another 18 years.
Over time, buildings and enclosures were built to house the influx of new animals that were arriving at the zoo, which had become the biggest in Europe. Many of these unique architectural relics remain today as listed buildings, meaning the animals of Ménagerie du Jardin des Plantes aren’t the only draw.
Nowadays when you’re not admiring the art-deco vivarium, you can see endangered species like giant tortoises, snow leopards and the Arabian oryx. You can also chat with the staff through ‘meet the keeper’ events to learn about the numerous threats to our planet’s biodiversity.
3. The Oldest Scientific Zoo: ZSL London Zoo
? Opened in 1828
? London, England
Perhaps the most famous zoo in the world? It’s certainly up there. And the renowned animal kingdom inside London’s Regent’s Park has a history that’s entirely unique. There are endless stories of famous names both two and four-legged.
London Zoo was the brain-cub of East India Company officer Sir Stamford Raffles, who sadly died before seeing his tireless work come to fruition. It began life as a center for scientific study – the Zoological Society of London.
ZSL’s original aim was to classify the natural world, making it the oldest scientific zoo in the world. Only fellows of the society, their guests, or those with written permission from a member were privy to the collection – on paper. The staff at the gates were known to admit almost anyone who could afford the one shilling entry fee.
The lucky few included a certain Charles Darwin, who would use its facilities to examine animals and hone his theories. His most famous study there was of Jenny the Orangutan, or Lady Jane, who befriended Darwin in 1838 and contributed to the trailblazing findings of his On the Origin of Species. Darwin was said to have been mesmerized by Jenny’s human-like mannerisms.
Despite founding fellow Sir Humphrey Davy billing the animals at ZSL as “objects of scientific research, not of vulgar admiration,” money would become scarce. Necessity dictated the doors be opened to the general public in 1847. Lucky for us!
With its exotic treasures now on public view, many of London Zoo’s residents would become popular characters, iconic eye-candy for an annual gaggle of gawking visitors.
There was Jumbo, the African bull elephant who arrived in 1865 from Ménagerie du Jardin des Plantes. Guy Fawkes, the hippo whose name caused quite a stir. And who could forget the unusually friendly black bear, Winnie, who inspired the timeless tales of Winnie-the-Pooh.
Perhaps the most beloved animal was Guy the Gorilla. So gentle a giant was Guy, that he was known to cradle birds that flew into his pen, before kindly releasing them from his enormous gorilla hands.
Visitors to London Zoo today are greeted by a statue of Guy the Gorilla. Now one of the most respected zoos in the world, it houses almost 800 different species.
Looking for some more London Zoo inspiration? There’s a whole load of wow-worthy content over on the ZSL Blogs. Discover more animals, and meet their carers. Learn about ZSL’s initiatives around the world, how to pursue a career in zoology, conservation tips, and much more.
4. London’s Younger Sibling: Dublin Zoo
? Opened in 1831
? Dublin, Ireland
Much like London Zoo, Dublin Zoo was a playground for scalpel-wielding scientists and cadaver-obsessed anatomists during its early years. In fact, many of the Zoological Society of Ireland’s original animals were donated and loaned from London.
Dublin Zoo opened to the public at its Phoenix Park location in 1831, with a collection of 46 mammals and 72 birds. Entry initially cost an eye-watering sixpence, but it was when entrance for a penny was introduced in 1840 that the ‘ah-zoo’, as it’s affectionately known, really began to capture the imagination of Dubliners.
The zoo has navigated its fair share of strife over the years. Animals and humans struggled to eat during the Famine years, while rifle bullets whizzed over brave zookeepers’ heads during 1916’s Easter Uprising.
A German bomb came perilously close during World War Two, and the zoo almost went out of business completely in 1989 only to be saved by government funding.
Happily, Dublin Zoo is now thriving. Known for its innovative approach to education, commitment to conservation, and an elephant habitat that’s revered around the world, it’s the top family attraction in Ireland.
5. The Oldest Provincial Zoo: Bristol Zoo
? Opened in 1836
? Bristol, England
Bristol Zoo opened in 1835 with the mission to contribute to the “observation of habits, form and structure of the animal kingdom, as well as affording rational amusement and recreation to the visitors of the neighbourhood”.
Started by physician and lifelong Bristolian Henry Riley, who was leader of the Bristol, Clifton and West of England Zoological Society, Bristol’s animal park is the quintessential local zoo. It’s come a long way from tigers catching the train to London, and gorillas travelling to TV appearances via taxi (just think of the Uber ratings)!
If you’ve ever been in a nocturnal house, you have Bristol Zoo to thank for your window into the life of night-time creatures. Built in 1954, theirs is the oldest in the world.
The zoo is fondly remembered for its regular appearances on the BBC’s Animal Magic. But its legacy goes much further than television. Bristol Zoo proudly boasts of its history in field conservation and animal protection, and is a respected center for research to this day.
? Opened in 1838
? Amsterdam, The Netherlands
ARTIS, formally named Natura Artis Magistra, opened its doors for the first time back in 1838, in what were then the boggy outskirts of Amsterdam. By its own admission, the first collection wasn’t the most thrilling. There were more monkeys in the paintings at the Rijksmuseum than in the zoo!
Just a year later, things would get a whole lot wilder. One of the most famous traveling animal shows in Europe, Menagerie van Anken, sold one of its animal troupes to ARTIS. You can just imagine the parade as lions, polar bears, hyenas and a kangaroo arrived, headed by an elephant named Jack.
There are plenty of stories from ARTIS’s near 200-year history. Perhaps the most interesting is its role as a hideout for persecuted Jews and resistance fighters during WWII.
The whole zoo, from the admin buildings to the monkey and bear enclosures, provided sanctuary. Despite the zoo being a favored haunt for German soldiers, not one concealed person was ever discovered.
Thankfully only the animals need safekeeping at the zoo nowadays. The site is a charming mix of listed buildings and modern enclosures, and is in the midst of a modernization project that will provide the Netherlands with an educational attraction for years to come.
7. Antwerp Zoo
? Opened in 1843
? Antwerp, Belgium
It’s no coincidence that Antwerp follows Amsterdam so soon on this list of the oldest zoos in the world. Having seen the wonders of ARTIS on a business trip in 1840, Jans Frans Loos wanted to replicate this park of exotic animals. The Zoological Society of Antwerp was born in 1841, and Antwerp Zoo opened two years later.
Loos joined forces with renowned taxidermist Jacques Kets, and… well, let’s just say the animals in Antwerp Zoo’s first collection didn’t have much of an appetite. The food bill would certainly increase in subsequent years.
The grounds of the zoo have a history that includes hosting concerts, and even wrestling and boxing at the summer Olympic Games of 1920. Fortunately, the kangaroos were not made to participate.
Despite damage from bombings during WWII, many of the zoo’s oldest buildings survive. This includes the birds of prey aviary built in 1856 and the Moorish Temple of 1871, which today hosts the wonderful okapi.
Other animals you can see today include hippos, African buffalos, and spectacled bears. Remember to give the macaroni penguins a cheesy grin!
8. Berlin Zoo
? Opened in 1844
? Berlin, Germany
Another zoo descendant from a royal menagerie, Berlin Zoo was founded in 1844, built around the exotic collection of King Frederick William III. His son, William IV, was less enamored by the natural world. His disinterest was pounced upon by the opportunistic Martin Hinrich Lichtenstein, the brain behind Germany’s first zoo.
The first animals of Berlin Zoo were exactly the sort you would expect to come from a royal collection. Strutting peacocks, graceful stags, and… raccoons.
The zoo grew exponentially during the second half of the 19th century, becoming a cultural hub with far more animals, plus terraces, restaurants, and a concert space. This period of positivity would continue until the mid 20th century.
Where Antwerp, Dublin and London Zoos escaped relatively unscathed, Berlin Zoo was obliterated by bombing during WWII – only 91 animals survived out of almost 4,000. One of the lucky ones was Knautschke, a young hippo who was rescued from his burning enclosure by a valiant group of teenagers, whose job it was to guard the zoo.
Knautschke became the beloved symbol of Berlin Zoo until he passed away in 1988. Now, Berlin Zoo is the most visited in Europe, a sprawling 90-acre site with over 20,000 animals. Remaining a home to happy hippos, the zoo contributes to various endangered species programmes around the world.
9. The oldest zoo outside Europe: Vandalur Zoo (Arignar Anna Zoological Park)
? Opened in 1855
? Chennai, India
The oldest zoo outside of Europe, Arignar Anna Zoological Park was also the first in India. Dating back to 1855, the first animals were donated by the Nawab of the Carnatic, and Chennai locals flocked to what was then Madras Zoo to get a look at its collection of critters.
After its early success, the zoo was moved to a bigger location next to Chennai Central Railway Station in 1861, where it remained for over 100 years. The noisy, increasingly smoggy city was no place for animals, and in 1985 the zoo was moved 40 km south to a lush, forested area in Vandalur.
Vandalur Zoo is probably the most rustic on this list of the oldest zoos in the world, without the luxury of the state-of-the-art facilities you’ll find elsewhere.
But what it lacks in multi-million dollar enclosures, it makes up for in scientific diligence. The zoo runs a successful breeding programme for rare and endangered species and proudly supports education and conservation projects.
? Opened in 1857
? Rotterdam, The Netherlands
Rotterdam’s much-loved Diergaarde Blijdorp was started by two railway workers who needed somewhere to house their squawking collection of exotic birds. Obviously.
It wasn’t long before this tiny garden collection of vogels began to flourish. In 1857, the Rotterdam Diergaarde was born, and over the next few decades would grow to house reptiles, monkeys, and more.
Forced to move from its central home in 1937, the relocation to the north of Rotterdam would prove to be disastrous for the zoo and many of its unfortunate residents. As Rotterdam was caught unawares by a German bomb attack in 1940, many of the animals yet to leave the city center were killed.
Frightened and injured animals roamed the streets including zebras, bison and monkeys. Some more dangerous animals were neutralized by the army out of fear they might escape.
The surviving animals (you can only imagine how scared and confused they were by the whole thing) were quickly moved to the new site at Blijdorp, where the zoo has remained ever since.
It’s safe to say a lot has changed. Rotterdam boasts one the most beautiful zoos in Europe, including an Oceanarium and African Gorilla Island. The zoo is committed to a whole range of breeding, conservation and education programmes.