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Where Did Zoos Come From?

Aug 9, 2008
What country has the most?

Were animals tamed in the Stone Age?

Where was there ever an all-day parade of wildlife?

Whose zoo required 10,000 keepers?

Intriguing questions all. Here are some of the answers my research uncovered.

We know that the first zoos of which we have recorded evidence are those pictured on the walls of Egyptian tombs. Paintings around 2500 B.C. depict gazelles, wild goats, oryx and other antelopes as zoo animals.

History also tells us the Chinese kept wild animals in "parks of intelligence," starting about 3,000 years ago.

But I was also interested to find that even back in the Stone Age, man apparently tamed dogs, horses, goats and cattle for domestic use.

During my years on the San Diego Zoo staff, I learned that as long ago as the 10th century, Europe had zoos. In the 1960s some 400 collections existed in the world, our country claiming the most with 87, followed by Germany's 42 menageries open to the public.

The classical Greeks are said to have revolutionized the zoo concept of only belonging to the rich and powerful. By the 5th Century B.C. common people could pay to see caged birds and wild animals.

Alexander the Great had special animal collectors attached to his armies to gather specimens for the royal zoos. In those days, monkeys from Africa and Asia were common household pets in Greece.

In the 3rd Century B.C., Alexandria, sometimes called the world's greatest city, apparently had one of the finest zoos of its time. Its wild inhabitants were paraded to the huge stadium every year on the day of the Feast of Dionysus.

One such parade, during the reign of Ptolemy II, reportedly took all day to pass the reviewing stand! The parade included 24 lions, 14 leopards, 96 elephants, 16 ostriches, 16 cheetahs, a white bear, 12 camels, a giraffe, a huge python, innumerable deer, antelopes, gazelles and even rhinoceros.

Rich Romans had private zoos. But the imperial city eventually had a government zoo, mainly to provide animals for the circuses in the Coliseum. This zoo was limited to the wildest, largest and fiercest animals.

Private zoos in early Rome concentrated on birds, the more brilliantly feathered, the better.

The next notable western zoo had to wait until the first great western emperor appeared. Charlemagne had a trio of zoos, with monkeys and an elephant donated by Haroun al Raschid, the caliph of "The 100l Nights."

Even William the Conqueror, not a particularly rich or powerful king, had a small royal zoo. It turned out to be a forerunner of the deer parks that became popular among England's landed gentry.

Marco Polo claimed that Kublai Khan had the greatest zoo up to his time. It required, Marco claimed, 10,000 zoo keepers!

Emperor Frederick II had three permanent zoos in Italy. He sent some specimens from them to his friend Henry III of England. That began the English king's zoo, housed in the Tower of London.

In one way, Louis XIV of France was the father of the modern zoo. He built his Menagerie du Parc at Versailles on a unified plan, much like modern zoos, with cages and enclosures grouped together. Until then zoos had been spread over the owner's parkland, aviaries in place, bear pits in another, and lion cages far away.

Louis also landscaped his zoo, and put in plants and trees as rare and exotic as some of his animals. This may well have been the first zoological garden, as contrasted with menagerie.

A few centuries later, the San Diego Zoo was the first major U.S. zoo to build on that concept. Today the horticulture is believed to be worth more than the collection of 5,000 exotics.

However, the Philadelphia Zoological Society planned the first U.S. zoo back in 1859, but start of construction was held up when the Civil War broke out. It finally opened in 1874, having been rushed to completion in time for the Centennial Exposition of 1876.

The San Diego Zoo also got its start with an international fair, the Panama-California Exposition, in l916. The Fair included animal exhibits, and when the Exposition was over, many of the exhibitors just took off, leaving the animals.

A local physician, Dr. Harry Wegeforth, while riding his horse in the city's Balboa Park, heard a distant roar from one of the abandoned lion cages. It sparked the idea to build San Diego a zoo nearby to care for these animals, and he soon set out to raise funds and select a location.

A world-class zoological garden eventually resulted, its 5,000 animal collection attracting over 3 million visitors a year.

Zoos exist to exhibit, study, and preserve animals. Whatever other purposes a zoo serves, whatever other uses a zoo may be put to, it is basically a residence for animals. Zoos are for people, but the animal and its welfare come first (something not true in many of the sad-looking "roadside zoos" housing miserable animals).
About the Author
Bill Seaton is a prize-winning author and lecturer who has served nearly 25 years as public relations director of the San Diego Zoo, SeaWorld and the California State Lottery. To learn more about the San Diego resident's books, blogs and awards, visit Bill Seaton.
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