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The 10 Oldest Zoos in the US

Zoos play an important role in wildlife conservation and public education, and they are a key part of America’s zoological legacy. While the designation of the earliest or first zoo in the United States is debatable, the Philadelphia Zoo sometimes claims this distinction. However, other towns in the United States had created menageries before its debut in 1875, displaying large animal collections and therefore qualifying as early zoos. 

These zoos have captivated audiences for years, acting as centers of study, conservation, and entertainment. As we look into the history of the oldest zoos in the United States, we discover their unique stories and long-standing contributions to animal protection. 

List of the 10 Oldest American Zoos

 The top 10 oldest zoos in the United States of America include: 

  1. Central Park Zoo
  2. Lincoln Park Zoo
  3. Roger Williams Park Zoo
  4. Philadelphia Zoo
  5. Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden
  6. Buffalo Zoo
  7. Binghamton Zoo at Ross Park
  8. Maryland Zoo in Baltimore
  9. Cleveland Metroparks Zoo
  10. Oregon Zoo

1. Central Park Zoo

The Central Park Zoo, which opened in 1864, is located in New York City’s famed Central Park and covers 6.5 acres (2.6 hectares). It is home to more than 150 different species. Its origins may be traced back to the late 1850s, when Phillip Holmes, a park messenger boy, was given custody of a bear cub.

As more eccentric New Yorkers joined in, abandoning unwanted creatures at Central Park’s headquarters, the makeshift zoo began to take form. In 1861, the State Legislature set aside a portion of the park for a formal zoological garden. By 1864, the Central Park Zoo had officially developed directly behind the Arsenal, solidifying its position as the country’s oldest zoo.

Despite its popular appeal, the early menagerie did not provide optimal animal circumstances. In 1934, Parks Commissioner Robert Moses led the development of a real zoo to properly care for the animals. This shift signaled the start of a new era at the Central Park Zoo.

It is a contemporary zoological park known for its conservation efforts and educational activities. Its extensive collection includes interesting species like snow leopards, red pandas, and sea lions, which are kept in themed displays such as the Polar Circle and the Tropic Zone, providing visitors with an immersive trip across numerous ecosystems.

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2. Lincoln Park Zoo

Lincoln Park Zoo, which opened in 1868, covers 35 acres (14 ha) of property in Lincoln Park, Chicago, Illinois. The zoo, which houses roughly 1,100 animals from 200 different species, has a fascinating history stretching back to its humble origins. Lincoln Park Zoo began with a substantial bequest from New York’s Central Park menagerie, which gave the city two pairs of mute swans. These swans established their home in Lincoln Park’s South Pond, prompting the city to establish an animal collection.

The zoo’s oldest animal house was built in 1870, marking the beginning of its expansion. Cyrus DeVry became the zoo’s first formal director in 1888, and he maintained the job for more than three decades. Lincoln Park Zoo distinguished itself by moving away from obtaining animals from circuses and becoming a pioneer in de-commercializing animal transfers. In 2018, the zoo celebrated its 150th anniversary, cementing its place as one of the country’s leading zoological institutions.

The Lincoln Park Zoo’s commitment to accessibility is obvious in its policy of free entry, which ensures that wildlife is accessible to all community members. The zoo provides visitors with a varied range of animal species and creative exhibits thanks to a combination of conservation activities, educational initiatives, and community participation. From the classic Kovler Lion House to the cutting-edge Regenstein Center for African Apes, Lincoln Park Zoo continues to attract and educate visitors of all ages.

3. Roger Williams Park Zoo

Roger Williams Park Zoo, located in Providence, Rhode Island, opened in 1872 and spans 40 acres (16.19 hectares). The zoo has more than 100 species. Betsey Williams, a descendent of Providence’s founder, Roger Williams, generously donated a 102-acre farm to the zoo at its establishment.

This property grant cleared the way for the construction of Roger Williams Park, which began with a modest collection of animals and birds displayed in a designated space, constituting the zoo’s core. Although the Menagerie structure did not open until 1890, animals remained a popular attraction in the park for decades.

Today, the ancient Menagerie building serves as a witness to the zoo’s growth, having been converted into the Roger Williams Park Zoo Gift Shop. Since its inception, the zoo has undergone major renovations and was accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) in 1986.

Roger Williams Park Zoo remains committed to wildlife conservation and education, providing visitors with immersive experiences in a variety of environments, including the Tropical America Rainforest and the Fabric of Africa exhibit. The zoo aspires to continue its history of biodiversity preservation and instills a greater awareness and love for the natural world through continuing conservation activities and educational programs.

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4. Philadelphia Zoo

On July 1, 1874, the Philadelphia Zoo opened in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, totaling 42 acres (17 ha). With a rich collection of around 1,300 animals representing more than 340 species, the zoo is a shining example of zoological expertise.

The Philadelphia Zoo, often dubbed “America’s First Zoo,” proudly maintains its status, despite prior menageries showing animals in numerous locations. What distinguishes it is the founding of the Philadelphia Zoological Institution in 1859, before any other formal zoological institution. The association acquired 30 acres for the zoo and accumulated a collection of 813 animals. Notably, architect Frank Furness was commissioned to create the zoo’s famous gates and gatehouses, which are still an important part of its character today.

The zoo’s debut was delayed until 1874 owing to the commencement of the Civil War in 1861, but it immediately acquired popularity and praise. The Philadelphia Zoo is well-known for its pioneering efforts in zoo architecture and animal care, including being the first in the United States to put animals into naturalistic environments.

Located in Fairmount Park, the institution continues to innovate with programs like the Zoo360 paths, which allow animals to travel overhead. Furthermore, the zoo leads revolutionary breeding initiatives for endangered species, firmly establishing its place at the forefront of conservation and education in the global zoological community.

5. Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden

The Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden, established in 1875 in Cincinnati, Ohio, spans 75 acres (30 hectares). The zoo’s wide collection of around 1,900 animals from more than 500 species demonstrates its commitment to animal care and protection.

The Zoological Society of Cincinnati set the framework for the zoo’s establishment in 1873, and the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden opened its doors two years later. Notably, the Reptile House, built in 1875, is the oldest zoo building continuously used for its intended function.

In recent years, the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden launched a daring $150 million capital drive to modernize and expand its elephant, rhino, and kangaroo exhibits. This ambitious endeavor received a huge boost with a generous $50 million grant from Harry and Linda Fath, prior donors to the zoo’s Gorilla World and Africa habitat.

The Cincinnati Zoo is well-known for its commitment to sustainability and environmental management, and it provides visitors with a unique combination of wildlife experiences and floral wonders. The zoo’s rich collection of animal species and beautiful botanical gardens make it a refuge for both wildlife enthusiasts and botany aficionados.

The Cincinnati Zoo’s educational projects and conservation efforts aim to encourage visitors to become advocates for the protection and preservation of the natural environment for future generations.

6. Buffalo Zoo

The Buffalo Zoo, located in Buffalo, New York, opened its doors in 1875 and covers 23.5 acres (9.5 hectares). The zoo’s precise number of species is unknown, however, it provides a varied range of wildlife interactions. The zoo began in 1870 when a pair of deer were given to the City of Buffalo, kicking off the development of what would become the Buffalo Zoological Gardens.

These deer settled in Delaware Park, where they were joined by other species throughout time. According to the Buffalo Zoo, the formal opening of the Buffalo Zoological Gardens was marked by the erection of the first permanent zoo structure in 1875, making it the country’s third oldest zoo.

The Buffalo Zoo’s animal collection developed dramatically under the direction of Frank J. Thompson, the zoo’s first curator, who was hired in 1895. The Zoological Society of Buffalo was created in 1931 and took over operational responsibility of the zoo in 1973.

The Buffalo Zoo, which is dedicated to wildlife conservation, education, and research, provides visitors with a variety of experiences, including tours of its historic elephant house and immersion in the new Arctic Edge exhibit. The zoo’s varied conservation efforts and educational activities aim to encourage visitors to become environmental stewards, promoting greater respect for the animal kingdom’s different habitats.

7. Binghamton Zoo at Ross Park

The Binghamton Zoo, located in Binghamton, New York, was founded in 1875 and is one of the oldest zoos in the US. Located in the lovely Ross Park, this historic institution occupies 90 acres of property generously provided by Erastus Ross, a famous industrialist with a vision for public parkland use.

The Binghamton Zoo, which is one of the oldest zoos in the US, originally encountered issues due to declining popularity. However, in 1966, concerned community members formed the Southern Tier Zoological Society.

The City of Binghamton then contributed funds for zoo maintenance, and in 1977, operating responsibility was passed to the Zoological Society. The Binghamton Zoo, which is dedicated to animal conservation and education, is a shining example of how to raise environmental consciousness and develop a strong bond between people and nature.

The zoo’s educational activities and interactive exhibits seek to encourage visitors to become biodiversity conservation advocates. From endangered species breeding activities to habitat restoration work, the Binghamton Zoo is committed to making a positive contribution to biodiversity preservation for current and future generations.

8. Maryland Zoo in Baltimore

The Maryland Zoo in Baltimore, which opened in 1876 and was formerly known as the Baltimore Zoo until its rebranding in 2004, has a major role in American zoological history. Its origins date back to 1862, when various animals were graciously donated for public display at Druid Hill Park.

Since its inception, the Maryland Zoological Society has played an important role in the zoo’s management, taking full authority under a lease arrangement with the State of Maryland in 1984. The zoo has developed over time, offering new attractions such as Penguin Coast, which has more than 80 endangered African penguin species. Notably, the Penguin House got the coveted AZA (Association of Zoos and Aquariums) Exhibit Design Award in 2016.

The Maryland Zoo covers 135 acres (54.63 hectares) and houses about 2,000 animals from nearly 200 species. From the renowned African Journey exhibit to the groundbreaking Polar Bear Watch habitat, the zoo provides immersive experiences that inspire conservation action. The Maryland Zoo remains committed to safeguarding species and ecosystems on a local and global scale via its comprehensive educational programs, research projects, and conservation activities.

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9. Cleveland Metroparks Zoo

Jeptha H. Wade generously donated 73 acres of land and 14 American deer in 1882, resulting in the establishment of the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo in Cleveland, Ohio. Originally located near Wade Oval in Cleveland’s University Circle, the zoo moved to its current location in the early 1900s to facilitate the development of the Cleveland Museum of Art. Over time, the zoo’s collection grew to include creatures that were not endemic to the area, such as monkeys, sea lions, and its first Asian elephant in 1940.

The formation of the Cleveland Zoological Group in 1957 was a watershed moment, and the group eventually took ownership of the zoo. In 1968, the City of Cleveland handed ownership of the zoo to the Cleveland Metropolitan Park District, and Cleveland Metroparks took over administration in 1975.

Since its establishment, the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo has been a leader in animal conservation and education, providing visitors with an unequal chance to interact with species from all over the world. With a wide collection of over 3,000 animals representing more than 600 species, the zoo continues to enchant visitors with its historic Primate, Cat, and Aquatics Building and cutting-edge rainforest display. The Cleveland Metroparks Zoo aims to inspire and educate future generations to be natural world stewards.

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10. Oregon Zoo

The Oregon Zoo in Portland, which opened in 1888 as Washington Park Zoo, is the oldest zoo west of the Mississippi. It dates back to 1882, when Richard Knight, an English immigrant, opened a business near the Willamette River docks. Knight’s Shop became an unplanned shelter for animals brought by sailors on their trips, including parakeets, monkeys, and other tiny critters.

The zoo’s adventure began when Knight purchased two bears and approached the mayor of Portland, giving them to the city. Knight was granted permission to set up two circus cages in what is now Washington Park. Knight eventually donated a grizzly bear to the city, establishing the Portland Zoo on November 7, 1888, which was renamed the Oregon Zoo.

The Oregon Zoo, which spans 64 acres in Washington Park, is home to nearly 2,600 animals, representing more than 200 species. From its famed Elephant Lands habitat to its celebrated conservation projects, the zoo is dedicated to protecting species and habitats on a local and worldwide scale. The Oregon Zoo’s numerous educational programs and community engagement activities seek to motivate visitors to actively contribute to the preservation of biodiversity for future generations.


The establishment of zoos in the United States demonstrates a strong commitment to wildlife protection and community participation. These venerable organizations represent our continuous dedication to biodiversity conservation and fostering a connection between people and nature.

With their lengthy histories, the oldest zoos in the United States exemplify the convergence of conservation, education, and entertainment. From the Central Park Zoo in New York City to the Oregon Zoo in Portland, these institutions have captivated audiences and advocated for animal preservation for decades.

Looking ahead, these zoos will continue to be vital sites for education, scientific research, and conservation efforts, assuring a better future for both humans and animals.

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What Is the Oldest Zoo in the US?

The Philadelphia Zoo, founded in 1859 and opened in 1874, is considered the first zoo in America. What distinguishes it is the founding of the Philadelphia Zoological Institution in 1859, before any other formal zoological institution

Why Is the Central Park Zoo Often Debated as the Oldest Zoo in the US?

Despite opening in 1864, the Central Park Zoo is sometimes contested due to the Philadelphia Zoo’s charter dating back to 1859.

Why Are Zoos Important?

Zoos play a crucial role in wildlife conservation, education, and research. They help raise awareness about endangered species and provide opportunities for research and breeding programs to help preserve threatened animals.

What Is the Second Oldest Zoo in the World?

The Ménagerie du Jardin des Plantes in Paris, France, is the world’s second oldest zoo, having opened in 1794.

What Is the Third Oldest Zoo in the World?

Lahore Zoo in Pakistan is the world’s third-oldest zoo. It was founded in the 1860s as a menagerie.

Where Is the Largest Zoo in the World?

The Wilds, a non-profit safari park in Cumberland, Ohio, is the world’s biggest zoo, with 10,000 acres.

Oleksandra Mamchii

Working as a academic lead at Best Diplomats.

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