Philadelphia zoo is America’s first zoo. Since the early 1700’s, the idea of an American zoo was inspired by English settlers with a keen interest in wildlife and by sailors and hunters who returned from faraway lands with exotic animals they’d never seen before. People would gather and pay shillings to see animals such as lions and elephants displayed at places like general stores and museums.
As a hub of scientific inquiry and discovery over many years, Philadelphia’s well-known leaders of the time began to formulate the idea of a zoo. In the mid-1850’s, a prominent Philadelphia physician, Dr. William Camac — the Zoo’s founding father — became involved and led the way to making America’s first zoo a reality. The charter establishing the Zoological Society of Philadelphia was approved and signed on March 21, 1859. The Society’s purpose was to establish a living collection of wild animals on a grand scale. Not only for the purpose of public exhibition, but it should also enable scientific observation. The site that was initially assigned to the Society in Fairmount Park was very unfortunate. It had no easy access, because it was located between two railroads and the Schuylkill River. Therefore the Society was reluctant to develop a zoo at that site. Furthermore the Civil War prevented any progress. So, it took another 15 years before America’s first zoo was ready to open, located in a different part of Fairmount Park.
The Zoo opened its gates on July 1, 1874. The Frank Furness Victorian gates and gatehouses, and the Zoo’s location, are the same today as they were on the day it opened. One of its assets, then and now, is John Penn’s home, The Solitude, which sat on the land chosen for the Zoo. John Penn was the grandson of William Penn, founder of Pennsylvania. The Solitude is considered to be Philadelphia’s most precise and elegant expression of neoclassical style. On opening day, flags flew, and a brass band welcomed more than 3,000 visitors. Admission was 25 cents for adults and 10 cents for children, a rate that held for the next half century. Visitors came on foot, on streetcars, by horse and carriage, and every 15 minutes by steamboat on the Schuylkill River, landing at the Zoo’s own wharf. The Girard Avenue Bridge opened three days later. 282 mammals were at display on opening day, including antelopes, lions, zebras, kangaroos, an elephant, a rhinoceros, a tiger, some 50 monkeys, and numerous rare species from Asia and Australia. There were also 674 birds and 8 reptiles. Quite some of these animals were obtained from Frank J. Thompson, an animal collector in Australia, who was appointed the first superintendent of the zoo.
In its first year of operation, the Philadelphia Zoo received well over 228,000 visitors. Although these numbers did not increased a lot during the next years, the City of Philadelphia finally recognised the zoo’s value to the city in 1891 with the first of its financial contributions.
The objective expressed by the Zoological Society that the animal collection should furnish scientific observation led to scientific work that began at a Zological Garden facililty. This eventually became the Penrose Research Laboratory, the first research center within an American zoo. It took some 50 years, but in 1928 the zoo had its first successfull birth of an orangutan and chimpanzee. Which also were the first births of these primates in U.S. Zoos. And in 1956 they had the first birth in a zoo ever of cheetah cubs. Unfortunately all three cubs died within three months. History recorded only one other litter born in captivity before. That was in the stables of the 16th-century Indian Mughal emperor Jahangir. Another remarkable breeding success was celebrated in 2004 with the first birth in captivity in North America of a giant river otter.
Today, the Philadelphia Zoo’s 42-acre (16.9 ha) Victorian garden is home to 330 species and about 1,260 specimens (Int. Zoo Yearbook 2009), many of them rare and endangered. The Zoo, fulfilling its mission of conservation, science, education and recreation, supports and engages in conservation efforts to protect endangered species around the world. Their polar bear enclosure is one of the Polar Bears International Arctic Ambassador Centers. These Centers lead the way towards animal welfare and conservation, because they feature bear friendly exhibits with lots of enrichment activities to stimulate the bears to be active and content. And they teach about polar bears, climate change, the Arctic and how this can be supported. Moreover, they support PBI research projects to help conserve wild polar bears. Besides the polar bears, cheetahs, hippos, giraffes and many more make the Zoo Philadelphia’s leading family attraction with over 1.2 million visitors last year.
(Sources: website Philadelphia zoo; website Smithsonian magazine; website PBI; Zoo and Aquarium History by Vernon N. Kisling, jr.)