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 (1985).

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 in Africa.

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 public.