History of Bronx Zoo
The Bronx Zoo first opened its gates to the public on November 8, 1899.
At the time, the zoo had 22 exhibits and 843 animals. The complete history
of the Bronx Zoo, however, begins four years prior, in 1895, with the
establishment of the New York Zoological Society (NYZS -- renamed WCS
in 1993). The purpose of the Society was to create a zoological park,
advance the study of zoology, protect wildlife, and educate the public.
Only the outer structure of the World of Reptiles remains much as it was
in 1899. What has not changed, however, is the zoo’s dedication
to wildlife conservation, education, and innovative exhibits.
The zoo’s first conservation success story occurred early in its
history. Bronx Zoo director William T. Hornaday had a deep interest in
the American bison. Bison, once numbering 50 million in North America,
had been decimated by hunting and westward expansion of the U.S. population.
In October 1899, Hornaday acquired bison for the Bronx Zoo and began to
build the zoo herd. In 1905, with fewer than 1,000 American bison left
in the wild, NYZS sponsored the founding of the American Bison Society
at the Bronx Zoo’s Lion House. With Hornaday as the bison group’s
president, the organization was instrumental in securing national protection
for the bison and rangeland for the establishment of new herds. In 1907,
15 of the Bronx Zoo bison were shipped to Oklahoma’s Wichita Mountain
Preserve. Subsequently, bison were provided for other refuges in Montana,
South Dakota, and Nebraska. Gradually, the western herds grew and the
bison population rebounded. Many of today’s bison in the western
U.S. are descendents of those Bronx Zoo animals shipped at the turn of
the 20th century.
The protection and care of animals, both in the wild and at the zoo, has
always been a priority. WCS’s first veterinary department was established
at the Bronx Zoo in 1901. At the time, the department consisted only of
a pathologist and a veterinarian. Today, the Wildlife Health Sciences
includes departments in clinical medicine, pathology, nutrition, and field
medicine. The 30+ staff members who work at the Wildlife Health Center,
located on the grounds of the Bronx Zoo, provide care to more than 15,000
animals at WCS’s five New York City facilities.
Although all species are important, snow leopards hold a special place
in Bronx Zoo history. These beautiful and endangered cats were first exhibited
at the zoo in 1903, making it the first zoo in the western hemisphere
to exhibit them. Snow leopards have been successfully bred at the Bronx
Zoo, with 82 cubs born between 1966 to 1999.
The snow leopard is just one of many animals under the care of the American
Zoo and Aquarium Association’s Species Survival Plan (SSP). SSPs
are cooperative breeding programs amongst zoos to help sustain captive
populations of many endangered and threatened animals. Former WCS President
and General Director, William Conway, was instrumental in developing the
SSP program. In addition to snow leopards, the Bronx Zoo is also involved
with SSPs for lowland gorillas, Chinese alligators, Mauritius pink pigeons,
and over 40 other species.
Although the science of saving wildlife is important, the Bronx Zoo has
always recognized the importance of educating the public. In 1929, the
Bronx Zoo established the world’s first formal zoo education program.
Over the years, the Education Department has received many awards for
its science-based programs, which are geared towards teachers and children
in grades K-12. Today, the education program reaches more than 1.7 million
schoolchildren in the New York metropolitan area and in school systems
in all 50 U.S. states and in 15 nations.
Zoo exhibits also play an important role in educating visitors. With the
1941 opening of African Plains, the Bronx Zoo was one of the first U.S.
zoos to move away from cages and exhibit animals in naturalistic habitats.
African Plains was the first predator-prey exhibit in North America. Here,
both predators (lions) and prey (nyala), safely separated by moats, can
be viewed from the same vantage point. The exhibit was revolutionary when
it opened in 1941 and even today, still amazes zoo visitors with its similarities
to the African savanna.
African Plains was the first of many Bronx Zoo exhibits to place animals
within the context of their natural habitat. To effectively accomplish
this new type of exhibit, a new type of expertise was needed. In 1963,
the Bronx Zoo established its Exhibition and Graphic Arts Department (EGAD)
-- the first of its kind in an American zoo. Consisting of artists, designers,
and other experts, the EGAD staff creates realistic-looking rocks, trees,
vines, termite mounds, and other elements which help recreate the look
of a natural ecosystem. Live plants and trees complement the man-made
items and add to the overall effect. Due, in part, to the creativity of
EGAD staff, the Bronx Zoo has remained a leader in zoo exhibit design.
Some of the exhibits created include the Aquatic Bird House (1964), World
of Darkness (1969), World of Birds (1972), Wild Asia (1977), and JungleWorld
The zoo’s most innovative project to date, however, is Congo Gorilla
Forest. The 6.5 acre, African rain forest habitat provides a home to 400
animals of 55 species, including 23 lowland gorillas, one of the largest
and most important breeding groups in North America. The award-winning
Congo Gorilla Forest directly links the zoo-goer with wildlife conservation
in nature -- the first zoo exhibit in the world to accomplish this. Visitors
to Congo Gorilla Forest vote which WCS African conservation project their
exhibit entry fee will be earmarked towards. In the exhibit’s first
year, visitors to Congo Gorilla Forest voted over $1 million to conservation
With cutting-edge exhibits such as the Congo Gorilla Forest, the Bronx
Zoo has secured its place as one of the foremost zoos in the world. The
Bronx Zoo will certainly undergo more changes in the years to come, but
it will always be guided by the original mission set forth back in 1895
-- to advance the study of zoology, protect wildlife, and educate the