Philadelphia Zoo

Every year on July 1, American Zoo Day is celebrated to commemorate the opening of the country’s first zoo: the Philadelphia Zoo, which opened on July 1, 1874, after a slight delay due to the American Civil War. It's celebrating its 139th anniversary this year.

“When the zoo originally opened, it was something completely new, a new idea and concept,” says Laura Houston, Philadelphia Zoo director of school and public programs.

The first animal at the zoo was a raven, and many of the 600 animals the zoo had upon opening were birds and reptiles. Houston says this is because of their relative ease to transport as well as what was interesting to people at the time. Other animals at the zoo included bobcats, North American black bears, grizzly bears and an Indian elephant.

The zoo has kept its tradition alive by continually paving the way for innovative animal care and conservation efforts in American zoos.

Zoo Firsts and the Evolution of Public Programs

Along with the honor of being America’s first zoo, the Philadelphia Zoo has been the home to a number of firsts throughout its history. Some notable events include the first successful births of an orangutan and chimpanzee in a U.S. zoo, home to the first children’s zoo to open in the Western Hemisphere and one of the first officially accredited zoos by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

“Over the years the zoo has had many transformations, but it’s always been a place for the community to come and see animals they haven’t seen before,” Houston says. “Where it’s really changed over the last 50 years or so is in moving away from just having animals in exhibits. Now we’re even more dedicated to conservation, messaging and mission.”

The zoo welcomes more than 1.2 million visitors a year and is now the home to more than 1,300 animals. Houston says the school and public programs have especially evolved over the years. Now there is more technology and interactive opportunities to connect the public with wildlife and encourage investigation into conservation issues. This enables the zoo to become more of an educational and conservational resource, and Houston says the zoo can now better “engage kids to create the next generation of wildlife stewards.”

Their new children’s zoo, KidZooU, opened in April 2013 and is also hoping to better engage children in wildlife issues. The zoo is separated into two parts: an outdoor area where kids can interact with animals and an indoor area where conservation stations and interactive exhibits teach kids how saving energy and recycling can help save wildlife.

“Conservation for kids can be difficult. It can be difficult for them to feel like they have the power to make a difference, so we put it [power] in their hands by showing them the everyday choices they can make that will make a difference,” Houston says.

Improving Animals’ Lives With Innovative Exhibits

Exhibits have also evolved drastically since the zoo opened. Kevin Murphy, general curator at the Philadelphia Zoo, says there has been a constant changing and bettering of the world of animals in exotic animal management during the last 30 years. Exhibits have been upgraded and improved tremendously. An example of this is one of the zoo’s most popular exhibits, First Niagara Big Cat Falls. Home to a number of endangered big cats, the exhibit allows the cats to move freely (and safely) among each other’s habitats.


“We connected the five exhibits out there with trail ways, and zookeepers can control the doors to allow cats to move to different exhibits [at times when they won't encounter a different species]. So the leopards can go into the jaguar exhibits, and the tigers into the lions. It expands what the animals can experience tremendously,” Murphy says.

The zoo is working on taking this concept and transforming the entire zoo with a massive trail system that will expand to all animal exhibits, allowing them to cross the zoo campus. The trails will link existing animal habitats so animals with similar habitat requirements can use each other’s spaces in a time-sharing system.

“Animals in the wild don’t stay in one perfect area. They move along different paths and typically establish linear trails,” Murphy says.

The ability to travel these zoo trails will make the animals feel more at home. The Treetop Trail, an elevated trail for small primates, and the Great Ape Trail for orangutans are already open. Plans are underway to expand the system to include a ground-based trail with elevated components for big cats and a fully ground-based trail for hoofstock like giraffes and zebras.

Different doors operated by zookeepers will control which animals can travel through the intricate system at any one time. At no point will different species cross paths. It’s an innovative design, and other zoos are definitely watching to see how it works out for the Philadelphia Zoo. This creative effort to improve animals’ lives will be another first for America’s first zoo.

“The Philadelphia Zoo is definitely breaking the mold,” Murphy says. “The trail system is complex, dynamic and very exciting!”