The Zoo was founded by George Mottershead, who already as a child decided that when he would be able to own a zoo it should have no bars. As he was upset seeing large animals in small cages in zoos at that time. In 1930, he brought his family to live in the Oakfield Manor and formed the original collection of animals from an earlier zoo at Shavington. He was influenced by the ideas of Carl Hagenbeck, who invented the modern zoo concept and by Heini Hediger, a pioneer of ethology. He kept the Zoo going through the Second World War, and rapid expansion followed after the war. George Mottershead died in 1978 aged 84 having realised his dream of a 'zoo without bars'.
The North of England Zoological Society, founded by Mottershead as well, has been running Chester Zoo ever since the opening.
The Zoo started with the purchase of 11 acres of land together with Oakfield Manor Building, The Stable Block and Lodge in circa 1935. The Zoo wide estate now consists of approximately 500 acres of which 110 acres is the zoological gardens and the wider estate making up the remaining 390 acres. Within the Zoo there are some 170 buildings of varying construction used for a variety of purposes. There is the existing Oakfield Manor and Stable Block that are listed with a preservation status. Other buildings include cafeterias, animal exhibits, administration, maintenance, and shops, all varying in size, and style and construction. On the wider estate, the 400 acres is primarily greenbelt and the land is leased or tenanted for agricultural purposes. On this land there are also three disused farms which are now used as storage and off show facilities. The Zoo also owns fourteen residential properties originally bought as accommodation for zoo employees. There are also two large houses which have been converted into houses for multiple occupancy which are used for short term lets for students and temporary staff.
Chester Zoo has a library situated within Cedar House Administrative Offices, with public access from the Zoo. The Library houses a fine collection of zoological, horticultural, conservational and veterinary material with books, journals, reports, student projects and conference proceedings. It is also the home of the Zoo archive collection, which covers the history of Chester Zoo from 1932 to the present day
In the beginning at just nine acres most of the original Zoo’s collection was housed in the stable block and courtyard, buildings which, along with the original Oakfield House, can still be seen within the Zoo grounds today. On the 110 acres now in use for the zoological garden the visitor can experience several different exhibits which emphasises the Zoo's dedication to conservation and care for the animals. Like the Twilight Zone Bat Cave, Islands in Danger exhibit gives you some feeling of the tropical rainforest, and then there is the Spirit of the Jaguar. In September 2001 Spirit of the Jaguar was officially opened. This enclosure for the jaguars is to be believed the largest and best in the world. The wealth of interpretation in the exhibit certainly stimulates the mind. It addresses some of the problems these magnificent cats face and highlights their importance in ethnic folklore. The building is divided into two sections one savannah and one rainforest. They want their visitors to experience the Jaguar’s different habitats, and for the cats to feel at ease with their surroundings. Both sections have been landscaped and planted to be sympathetic to the different environments. The aim is of course that the jaguars thrive in these environments, which includes their psychological well-being, allowing natural behaviour to be displayed.
The Zoo cares for over 7,000 animals, representing over 400 different species. Conservation is at the heart of the Zoo and so around half of these are threatened. Because the Zoo is very conservation orientated, less attention has been paid to its collection over the years. Nevertheless, it is still the largest zoo in England except for London Zoo.
(Source: website Chester Zoo; Zoo and Aquarium History by V.N. Kisling)