How did zoos develop?

Figure 1. Hunting scene, from ancient Assyria, showing a royal hunt in a royal park created to contain lions.

Increasingly, modern zoos today are not just seen as a place to see local and exotic animals, but they are treated as places of conservation. However, we can see that in relatively recent history that was not the case, as many older zoos have display areas and cages that clearly were intended to simply display animals to a curious public. The history of zoos has changed, from one of limited display to upper society, to one that was accessible to many. Furthermore, the importance of the animals and how they were seen has changed.

Development of the Concept of a Zoo

Both ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia had a concept of zoos developed in their ancient societies by at least around 2500 BC. In Egypt, including in Saqqara, a zoo has been found, where exotic animals such as antelopes, baboons, hyenas, cheetahs, cranes, storks and falcons were likely kept. In southern Mesopotamia, royal figures seem to have kept wild animals. However, the reasons for keeping these animals may have varied. In Egypt, some of these animals may have been seen as sacred as well as a form of royal pet, while in Mesopotamia taming wild animals was seen as demonstrating the power of kings and the royal line. In fact, a king fighting a lion or tiger, at least shown as a symbolic depiction, indicated the power of royalty. Keeping such animals may have been done to even eventually have a type of royal combat with these animals. By 13th century BC, larger animals, such as elephants and giraffes, and even more exotic species were being kept. In Egypt, giraffes and pet lions were recorded to have been kept by Ramses II.[1]

In the period of the Neo-Assyrian Empire, from the 9th to 7th centuries BC, lions were being kept in enclosures and often were depicted in wall reliefs. What may have differed in some of these enclosures is there seems to have been an attempt to also reconstruct the ecosystem in which lions and tigers existed. Sennacherib, king of Assyria from 704 – 682 BC, created a marsh-like environment and garden in his royal city of Nineveh that not only contained exotic plants but also was intended to recreate the marsh and wider environment of certain animal species (Figure 1).[2]

In China, during the Zhou Dynasty between 2000-1000 BC, parks were created that had walled enclosures that also kept a menagerie of animals. In the Han Dynasty, late in the 1st millennium BC (around 200 BC), records indicate private menageries were kept, where animals included birds, bears, tigers, alligators, rhinoceroses, deer, and elephants. This was similar to Neo-Assyrian gardens and animal enclosures that replicated the environment, similar in many ways to Assyria.[3]

In ancient Greece, private menageries were also known. The most famous was the one owned by Aristotle. Here, he kept a variety of animals for study. In fact, it was this menagerie that led to the first book dedicated to studying animals, called The History of Animals, written in the 4th century BC. While Aristotle used his own collection of animals, he also observed animals in the wild such as in the island of Lesbos.[4]

Rise of Zoos

Figure 2. Lion sculptures commemorating lions kept near the Lion Tower at the Tower of London.

The Roman Period reflects a mixture of wonderment, where many exotic animals were collected as the Roman Empire expanded. This included elephants, leopards, lions, ostriches, and parrots, in addition to bears and other native animals to Italy. However, the Romans are also well known for their cruelty towards animals in the colosseum, where many animals were killed in combat or even just pleasure. Nevertheless, the Romans were very fascinated by wild animals, where they seem to have promoted the use of animals in public display, such as parading elephants, showing animal tricks, and even dressing animals (e.g., monkeys were dressed as soldiers and even rode in chariots pulled by goats). They even began to study animals that they held in captivity, similar to Aristotle. Rome's experience with Carthage led them to respect the power of the elephant, even if it had relatively little military value. However, it was a symbolic animal to the Romans as a powerful animal that could be used to frighten their enemies, similar to how they were frightened by the animal when they first encountered it against Carthage.[5]

What the Roman period shows is that animals were now beginning to be seen not just as wonderment for the wealthy or powerful, but now animals were beginning to be shown in more public settings and displayed for their wonder and power. While clearly animals were often treated with cruelty, the period of Rome also began a process where people increasingly came into closer contact with wild animals and those that were very exotic.

In the Medieval period in Europe, menageries were once again popular among monarchs. Gifts of wild animals, such as the Abbasid Caliph sending an elephant to Charlemagne, occurred frequently. In effect, zoos (or really animal collections) became, once again, more private and the privy of royalty or very high sectors of society. In the reign of Elizabeth I, however, descendants of leopards that were once owned by Henry III (a gift from Fredrick II) were put in one of the first public animal displays (Figure 2). Elizabeth had moved the animals to what became known as the Lion Tower in the western entrance of the Tower of London.[6]

Modern Development

The oldest known zoo today is the Tiergarten Schönbrunn in Vienna, which was once a royal lion park. However, it was made a public park and zoo by emperor Francis I. This public park and zoo became popular and soon other locations in Europe gained interest in having their own public zoos. Madrid and Paris soon followed in the late 18th century, while a zoo in Russia was founded in 1806 to scientifically study animals. By the early 19th century, the concept of public display, to satisfy public interest, and scientific study had emerged as being central concepts in zoos.[7]

The London Zoo in Regent's Park, founded in 1828, began to become the symbol of what a modern zoo should look like. It was the first zoo dedicated to the public and science, which made it different than the earlier zoos that often separated these ideas of public display and scientific research. The design of the zoo also revolved around large crowds viewing animals, thus wide walking areas and larger cages were created so that more people can see the animals. In effect, it was the first zoo to be purposely designed for the wider public. The first public glass house and apiary for birds were also opened at the zoo.[8]

Soon, in Dublin in 1831, people began to realize the medical benefits of studying animals. Thus, zoos were also transformed into medical research areas, although in most cases this often was on animals that were already dead rather than harvesting animals. The next major development for zoos was essentially a reinvention of what the Assyrians had developed. That is, a zoo with open areas and areas that resembled the animals' natural habitats. This was first done in Hamburg in 1907 by Carl Hagenbeck, who designed this concept. In the 1930s, the concept of a safari park zoo had emerged. This led to the development of Whipsnade Zoo, which allowed visitors to come close to the animals as they went through a safari-like natural setting.[9]

While zoos increasingly tried to recreate natural habitats for the pleasure of the public, relatively little focus was put on animal welfare, particularly in the animals' home countries and regions. This changed by the 1970s, when conservation movements gained increasing momentum. There was greater public pressure for zoos to reform to focus more on conservation efforts. Many zoos after that time began to repackage themselves as conservation focused rather than as simply displaying exotic animals. This was the case in Brookfield Zoo in Chicago. While the zoo was initially opened in the 1930s as a more typical city zoo, it began to refocus its efforts towards conservation. It build the first dolphin house in the 1960s and by the 1970s and 1980s, work was also done in countries where animals came from by zoo staff to help conserve natural habitats. Increasingly, zoos were being refocused to educate the public about habitat loss. This put increasing pressure for zoos to change their displays to more natural settings that attempted to recreate natural habitats for animals. Scientific study and university research increasingly became integrated with zoos during this period.[10]


With few exceptions, for centuries animals were kept for the privy of royalty or powerful individuals in society. However, this began to change more substantially by the 18th century and the rate of public interest increased in having zoos in the 19th century. This increased contact, and changes in attitude, led to a refocus of many zoos today toward conservation efforts. Zoos are still often criticized for poor treatment of animals or even keeping exotic animals in environments very different from those where they naturally live. However, many zoos today have begun to integrate research and conservation efforts that also help the welfare of animals in the regions where they come from, particularly in South America, Africa, and Southeast Asia, where habitat loss has increased substantially.


  1. For more on wild animals kept in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, see: Bostock, S.S.C. (2014) Zoos and animal rights: the ethics of keeping animals. Glasgow Zoological Gardens. Glasgow.
  2. For more on Assyrian royal gardens and animals, see: Dallay, S., (1993) Ancient Mesopotamian Gardens and the Identification of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon Resolved. Garden History, 21, pp. 1 – 13.
  3. For more on menageries in ancient China, see: Schafer, E.H. (1968) Hunting Parks and Animal Enclosures in Ancient China. Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, 11, pp. 318 – 343.
  4. For more on animal collections in ancient Greece and Aristotle's groundbreaking work, see: Hancocks, D. (2001) A different nature: the paradoxical world of zoos and their uncertain future. Berkeley, Univ. of California Press.
  5. For more on how the Romans treated wild and exotic animals, see: Vernon N. Kisling (ed.) (2001) Zoo and aquarium history: ancient animal collections to zoological gardens. Boca Raton, Fla, CRC Press, pg. 19.
  6. For more on Medieval in England and animal gifts and the lion enclosure in London, see: Sophie Page (ed.) (2010) The unorthodox imagination in late medieval Britain. UCL/Neale series on British history. Manchester ; New York : New York, Manchester University Press ; Distributed in the U.S. exclusively by Palgrave Macmillan, pg. 198.
  7. For more on the history of Tiergarten, see: Hosey, G.R., Melfi, V. & Pankhurst, S. (2009) Zoo animals: behaviour, management, and welfare. Oxford ; New York, Oxford University Press, pg. 20.
  8. For more on the London Zoo, see: Ito, T. (2014) London Zoo and the Victorians, 1828-1859. Royal Historical Society Studies in History New Series
  9. For more on the advancement of zoos in the 19th and early 20th centuries, see: Vernon N. Kisling (ed.) (2001) Zoo and aquarium history: ancient animal collections to zoological gardens. Boca Raton, Fla, CRC Press.
  10. For more on the modern history of zoos and conservation, see: Bryan G Norton, Michael Hutchings, Elizabeth F Stevens, Terry L Maple, et al. (eds.) (2010) Ethics on the ark: zoos, animal welfare, and wildlife conservation. Smithsonian Books; New edition editio. Washington.


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