During the second half of the nineteenth century the first menageries in Moscow were established as entertainment facilities. The first was founded in 1855 by two Frenchmen (names unknown), while the Kreuzberg family owned a private menagerie that opened its door to the public in 1862. Together these animal collections formed the heart of the Moscow Zoological Garden founded by the Society for Acclimatization of Plants and Animals, which was established by professors of the Moscow State University. The initial idea for such a zoological garden came in 1857, but it took the Society, including one of its founding fathers professor Anatoly P. Bogdanov, until 1863 to be able to buy property for the future zoo. The Zoo was opened to visitors on 13 February 1864 at the location where it still exists until this very day. On opening day 287 animals were on display, of which 134 were domestic animals, while the others were exotic specimens such as tigers, lions, jaguar, leopard and rhino.
In those days it was an unique experiment to create “a living museum outdoors,” as professor Bogdanov said, in such severe climatic conditions of central Russia. The primary purpose of the Zoological Garden according to the members of the Society was:
to collect alive specimens of higher vertebrates ( firstly — the animals of Russian fauna) for scientific observations;
to establish a collection of typical animals that could serve educational purposes, i.e. distribution of zoological knowledge among the wide public communities;
to carry out scientific experiments and observations of important animals, especially domestic animals of Russian breeds.
The Zoo was financed by the entrance fees and private donations, including contributions by members of the imperial family. In the first years the annual number of visitors grew up to ten thousands. Nevertheless, the incomes did not cover the expenses and the Moscow City Council refused to give financial support. So, the Zoo went into private hands of the Ryabinins’ family in 1874. They transformed the Zoo into an amusement park and in three years time ruined the place. In 1878 the Zoo was run by the Society for Acclimatization of Plants and Animals again, including fund raising activities. This time the Society was able to manage the Zoo successfully, and even to buy a number of animals. But in the turmoil of the Revolution of 1905 the Zoo was severely damaged: the buildings were ruined, the library was set on fire, many animals perished. So, for the second time the Society was forced to turn over the Zoo to private owners.
Then in 1914 World War I broke out. For the Zoo this meant that in the autumn of 1914 the only building that remain to this day was transformed from the director’s premises to a hospital for wounded WWI soldiers. The WWI impact compounded Russia’s suffering from a number of economic and social problems, which resulted first in the 1917 February revolution followed by the October revolution. In the aftermath of the Great October Socialist Revolution of 1917 and the fall of the Russian Empire, the Society ceased to exist, and in 1919 the Zoological Garden was declared national property and transferred under the responsibility of the ministry of Culture of the communist Moscow parliament, the Mossovet. In 1922 it was transferred to the authority of Moscow City Council and since then it has been supported by the City Authorities. Construction work began on the Zoo grounds. The Zoological Garden premises almost doubled in size with the establishment of the ‘New’ territory on the opposite side of Bolshaya Gruzinskaya street. New exhibits, which followed the principle of Carl Hagenbeck’s bar-less enclosure design were established. One of the most interesting exhibits of the Zoo called ‘Animal Island’ still exists. It was a high stony rock surrounded by a deep water ditch that separated the visitors from bears, tigers, lions and other large predators on the ‘Island’. The total size at the time was nearly 18 hectares.
In 1926 the Zoological Garden was renamed ‘Zoological Park’. At that time the range of activities extended, the animal collection increased considerably with expeditions collecting wildlife in Central Asia, the Far East and the Caucasus. New departments were established, focussed on for instance scientific research, education, veterinary science and nutrition. In those same years Moscow Zoo was the first zoo in the world where educational activities were the main priority.
In 1924 the Zoo had established the Young Biologists Club that gathered like-minded young people that joined in real scientific research. Many of them became a Zoo employee. The Club was founded by Petr Manteifel, who also was the pioneer father of the science called ‘zoo biology’. Manteifel and his young biologists discovered a way of artificial breeding sables (Martes zibellina), which were on the verge of extinction due to man’s insatiable pursuit for its expensive fur. In the 1930s during Stalin’s great purge many members of the Young Biologists Club were arrested accused of spreading anti-soviet propaganda and liberal-minded ideas and having contact with German colleagues at Berlin zoo, some were even executed as foreign spies. The Club was considered a non-governmental organisation beyond the direct control of the authorities, which in fact was partly true because the Club was a real democracy, with membership available to all.
Although many animals were evacuated and many of the zoo staff were called to arms at the beginning of World War II the Zoo was kept open. Of the 750 employees at autumn 1941 only 220 remained on the staff, most of them women. Getting enough food for the animals was a constant challenge, for instance carcasses of killed horse at the battlefield around Moscow were brought to the zoo. More than six million people visited the Zoo from 1941 to 1945 to enjoy the sights of animals that had remained.
At wartime the scientific work proceeded, perhaps even more intense than before or after the war. The scientific staff worked especially on development of antibiotics. But the most important mission of the Zoo during the war was to give people hope. It produced the illusion of a peaceful life until people survived through the desperation of the war with the Red Army soldiers as the most frequent visitors of the Zoo. Which were given the pleasure of watching newborn offspring even during the war.
During the soviet union period (1922−1991) not many highly ranked people cared about the zoo — no soviet leader had any interest in it. The city encroached on the zoo premises, while the zoo needed additional space for the ever expanding zoo population of animals. Because the breeding results were still excellent.
The Zoo lived up to the goal it had set for itself and made educational activities the main priority. Zoo staff distributed knowledge in the field of natural history and tried to raise the public awareness and concern about the necessity for wildlife conservation. The zoo assisted schoolchildren and students with studying biology, actively participated in scientific research, and actively contributed to scientific publications. So, the Zoo became one of the larger scientific institutions in Moscow. And of course it still was the favourite recreational place for Moscow citizens and those who visited the city.
As off 1974 when Igos Sosnovsky retired as director and his successor Vladimir Spitsyn took over Moscow Zoo became part of the international zoo community again. Sosnovsky as a WWII veteran hadn’t been able to brush aside the fear of repression and avoided all international contacts for some reason. Spitsyn restored all international activities from before the war and the Zoo became member of many European and International Breeding Programmes in which it exchanged its rare and endangered animals, shared experience and information.
Although already in the 1970s improvement of all zoo facilities was needed and ideas of a new zoo in another region of Moscow were launched, nothing happened due to local economical and social problems. By the end of the 1980s the Zoo’s condition became alarming. Facilities were deteriorating, enclosures were dilapidated and technical equipment needed to be replaced as well. And while a few improvements had been achieved — such as a partial renovation of the main entrance, the monkey house and lion house — urgent measures were still needed.
Then, in 1992 the new Moscow government made a decision to start the most ambitious reconstruction project in Moscow Zoo’s history with the first stage of the project to be completed by 1997, when the 850th anniversary of the City would be celebrated. Anatoly A. Andreev who had been involved in the Zoo’s design and architecture since the 1970s headed the team of architects. The project’s renovation objectives were focussed at (a) preservation or partial renovation of the historically valuable buildings and existing pools, (b) reduction of the noise from the surrounding streets, © connection of the Old and the New territory via a footbridge, and (d) expansion of the Old territory by incorporating adjacent areas and buildings.
Besides the preservation and renovation of almost all important zoo constructions, including the ones that actually were dilapidated, many new enclosures and facilities were built. Already in 1993 the footbridge that connected the Old and New territory was completed. It allowed visitors to avoid crossing the busy B. Gruzinskaya street with its heavy traffic. In 1993 other constructions were completed as well, such as an enclosure for large birds of prey and a complex of enclosures for feline species, including leopards, Pallas’ cats and lynx. Next, the Hagenbeck-style ‘Animal Island’, one of the most remarkable exhibits in the New territory, was renovated. The historic appearance with enclosures that resembled the natural habitats of Amur tiger, striped hyena, African wild dog and Asian black bear was preserved. Later they introduced Asian lions in one of the enclosures around the large rock in the centre of the ‘island’. During the renovation they created the Exotarium, which held several aquariums, inside the rock on the second floor.
The following years many more enclosures were renovated, besides the new research and veterinarian facilities that were put into operation in 1994. In 1996, the main entrance itself (featuring a small artificial waterfall) was reconstructed. The same year the old, dilapidated elephant complex was demolished and a new elephant house was erected at the same spot, while the inhabitants (four African elephants and four Asian elephants) were temporarily moved to a a former tram depot that was completely renovated and specially equipped. A new children’s zoo was opened in the New territory, including a children’s theatre that organises shows with educational elements. And besides several aviaries, a pavilion for water birds was built on the shore of the large pond in the New territory.
Although in those days 4 additional hectares of space was added to the former existing 18 hectares, the Zoo still lacked space to create favourable conditions for their species to breed. And its location in the centre of Moscow didn’t contribute to the favourable breeding conditions they wanted of course. Therefore, the 200 hectares area near the city of Volokolamsk (about 100 km from Moscow) that was given to the Zoo in 1996 for the establishment of a breeding station was very much welcomed (see also ).
The first major stage of the general reconstruction of the Moscow zoo represents a unique event. Not only over 50 facilities have been renovated (90% of all existing facilities) and newly built, but it was achieved in such a short period of time. But maintenance and small and larger refurbishment is ongoing business in a zoo. So, in 2002, the Moscow City Government and the City Council allocated the necessary funds to start construction of a new pavilion for the Asian elephants. In 2003 the three elephants could move house already, and in spring 2009, the first newborn elephant calf was welcomed.
The Moscow Zoological Park has come a long way from the small zoological garden it was to the large institution of scientific research, education, conservation and recreation it is today. And due to the dynamics of the standards used in the zoo community regarding animal health and welfare, Moscow Zoo is constantly improving its facilities, also during 2014 celebrating its 150th anniversary.
(Source: Moscow Zoo website; Zoo with a Human Face, to the 150th anniversary of the Moscow Zoo — a documentary by Darya Violina and Sergei Pavlovsky, 2014; Zoo and Aquarium History by Vernon N. Kisling, Jr., 2001; Wikipedia)