The world’s second surviving zoo, excluding the ancient bird collections in UK’s St. James Park and Kew gardens, dates back to 1774, when King Charles III ordered the construction of a small menagerie in the current Cuesta de Moyano, part of the gardens of the Buen Retiro Palace. To populate the Zoo, animals were received from several countries, mainly Latin America, the Philippines, and the Indies, but also from Constantinople, during the eighteenth century. The animals were sent by viceroys and colonial governors, and consisted of macaws, toucans, ocelots, pumas, snakes, alligators, and monkeys. Even an elephant, a gift from the governor of the Philippines, arrived and walked all the way from Cadiz to Madrid – Cadiz being the harbour where it disembarked.
In the late eighteenth century facilities moved to the corner of Parque del Buen Retiro, near modern Puerta de Alcalá. The cages known as “The Leonera” contained the most dangerous animals. The Zoo, called the wild animal house (“la Casa de Fieras”) had a design style influenced by the model used for animal houses in Louis XIV’s menagerie in Versailles. “The Leonera” cages contained dangerous animals and were placed forming an octagon arena in the center of which were herbivores such as deer, gazelles, llamas, ostriches to be found. “The Leonera” was a two-story building. On the ground floor there were cages with several tigers, a panther, two hyenas, and a jackal. While on the upper floor rooms were fitted for the royal family and their guests, which found stuffed animals in their rooms as part of the decoration.
During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century the scientific and research purposes of the menagerie were overshadowed by another, less elevated, function. Fights were held between lions, tigers and bulls. These shows were highly acclaimed by the monarchs and the aristocracy, and were frequently held as part of the festivities for baptism of infants and feasts in honour of distinguished foreign visitors.
The French invasion in 1808 was a blow to the Zoo, as many animals were killed. And when the French troups were finally defeated in 1813, the Zoo was in a deplorable state. During the succesive reigns of King Ferdinand VII and Isabel II that followed, many facilities were improved and the animal collection greatly increased year after year. La Casa de Fieras was officially renamed Royal Cabinet of Natural Sciences. At this time the maintenance of the Zoo was the responsibility of the Royal House.
After the Revolution of 1868, the Parque del Buen Retiro, including the Zoo, opened to the public for the first time, while the City Council took office and became responsible for the Zoo’s management. Public vandalism and maintenance costs forced the City Council to auction surplus animals for financial resources.>
As in 1884 the Council could not cope with the managerial situation anymore, the Council handed over the operating rights to Luis Cabañas, a circus animal trainer. He knew his business well and made the Zoo very popular. The daily baths of the elephant Pizarro attracted lots of visitors, as did the arrangement that people were allowed to cycle through the park. Cabañas even organised fights between zoo animals and bulls in major cities in Spain. These were banned after an accident in San Sebastian where a tiger and a bull knocked over the fence that separated them from the public, causing one death and 17 being seriously injured. The daily baths of the elephant Pizarro ended when one day he escaped from his keeper, fled down the street of Alcala and went into a store. Finally, on December 31, 1918, the City Council terminated the contract with the family Cabañas.
With the arrival and appointment of Cecilio Rodriguez as head gardener a new atmosphere was created. Apart from changes to the walks in the gardens a variety of cats arrived from the Sahara and Guinea. Other species were introduced, such as ostriches, zebras, elephants, antelopes, polar bears and a hippopotamus.
With the proclamation of the Second Republic in 1931, the new democratic council dismissed Cecilio Rodriguez. The Zoo went through a difficult period, and almost had to close down during the Civil War (1936−1939). Many animals died of starvation and others were slaughtered for human consumption during wartime. And worst of all some reversed scenes could be seen when between 20 and 30 people were thrown alive in the cages to be devoured by the carnivore animals.
After the Civil War Mr. Rodriguez returned and made every effort to improve the environmental conditons. As Spain was officially non-belligerent during World War II the Zoo received quite some evacuated animals from different European zoos, but mainly from Berlin. All this restored the Zoo to its original condition or even better.pan>
Further progress was made with the set up of a veterinary clinic, and animals that were received from Munich Zoo, such as bears, tigers, lions and primates, and donated by individuals. The Zoo’s popularity steadily increased, recording visitor numbers of more than 1,5 million in 1967.
Already in the 1950s there were plans to move the Zoo to the Casa de Campo, a large park west of the city centre. But it took until 1972 before these plans could be effectuated. A public tender, or competition, for that purpose was won by architect Jordi Mir Valls and built by Antonio León de la Viña, who was not only the building contractor but also the promotor of the new Madrid Zoo. So, on June 23, 1972, the mayor of Madrid closed the old Zoo, “la Casa de Fieras”, and officially opened the new and modern, for a large part bar-less, Zoo in the Casa de Campo. At the time the animal collection consisted of 550 specimens corresponding to 83 species. The facilities of the old Zoo (“la Casa de Fieras”) once closed, were dismantled for the most part and served for a short period as administrative offices of the Municipal Retirement Board. Nowadays, only remnants can be found.
In 1978 China presented the King of Spain with two giant pandas, Shao Shao and Quian Quiang. A cub, Chu-lin, was born in 1982, and died in 1996. Chu-lin was the first captive-born panda in Europe by artificial insemination. The zoo is now home to two other giant pandas on loan from China, Bing Xing (male) and Hua Zui Ba (female), which arrived in 2007 and are housed in a brand new enclosure (indoors and outdoors). Their twin male cubs, Po and De De, were born to them on September 7, 2010, also conceived via artificial insemination. The Zoo was able to extend several times over the last years and built a dolphinarium in 1987. Other specialties of Madrid Zoo are the koalas, the aquarium (built in 1995) and the gorilla enclosure.
Nowadays the Zoo is owned by the city, but is managed by the international entertainment operator Parques Reunidos, which is based in Madrid and manages about 70 entertainment facilities in Europe, Argentina and the United States.
(Source: website Zoo Aquarium Madrid; Zoos of the World by James Fisher, 1967; Zoo, a history of zoological gardens in the west by Baratay & Hardouin-Fugier, 2002; Wikipedia)