WRITTEN BY: Bella Coyne
It’s summertime, which means families across America are searching for activities that will engage and inspire their whole crew. Lucky for those families, William Camac of 1800’s Philadelphia knew exactly what they needed when he founded America’s first public zoo! Slather on some SPF and grab your gigantic panda-themed slushie cups, because today we’re going to learn about the history of American zoos.
Americans had had a taste of animals on display, from private exotic menageries to horse and dog circuses, but before 1874, there had never been a true zoological park in the States. Philadelphia doctor and philanthropist, William Camac, was inspired to change that. After extensive travels and research in Great Britain and Europe, Dr. Camac returned to the United States, armed with the knowledge of how the best zoos in the world operate, and helped to found the Zoological Society. A well-liked and prosperous citizen of Philadelphia, he was made president of the Zoological Society—but all of the time he devoted and all the funds he raised were brought to a screeching halt with the start of the Civil War. During the War, he served under General Patterson and was made a Major in the army, where he eventually became a head surgeon.
But after the battles ended, he turned his focus back to the zoo. In Fairmount Park sat a neoclassical mansion called “The Solitude”, which held a rich history and intriguing story of mysterious bachelors, famous grandfathers, art-loving ex-Americans, and George Washington. (To learn the story, please visit https://www.livingplaces.com/PA/Philadelphia_County/Philadelphia_City/Solitude.html) Camac knew the famous home, along with the beautifully maintained park, would be the ideal spot. Upon securing 30 acres, the Society worked tirelessly to collect over 800 animals to display! And finally, in 1874, the Philadelphia Zoo opened its doors to the public.
Today, the flawlessly preserved Solitude house still sits in the center of the land, serving as the administration building for the flourishing Zoological Society. Those 800 animals have grown to a collection of approximately 1,300. The zoo has become one of the nation’s leading facilities in animal conservation and breeding rare species. And the simple park has progressed to a massively immersive experience, with the recent introduction of their Zoo360 program: a system of interconnecting tunnels and overhead pathways that allow certain animals to travel great distances throughout the zoo!
But the Philadelphia Zoo, while certainly one of the best, isn’t the largest zoo in America. That title is held by the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, which spans 580 acres and houses over 7,000 animals!
American zoos were originally just a place to see exotic animals in captivity. But nowadays, zoos across the country and the world have devoted themselves to protecting endangered species, rescuing injured animals in the wild, and launching scientific expeditions to further conserve the planet. The San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance, for example, is “an international, nonprofit conservation organization with two front doors.” A joint effort between the San Diego Zoo and the San Diego Safari Park, it combines animal exhibits with scientific research to work at constantly improving conservation of wildlife around the world. Their conservation and exploration work spans quite literally across the world, from Southwest America to the forests of Australia and many destinations in between.
The Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute, based in Washington DC, works to involve the community in their research, further informing America about the most endangered species in the world and showing that you don’t have to be a scientist to make a difference. From their efforts in introducing Black-Footed Ferrets back into the wild and inviting the public to vote on names for the kits, to investigating bird deaths in the United States and asking for reports from anyone who notices specific mysterious symptoms, to their adopt-a-species program, they work tirelessly to educate America and discover new ways to protect and preserve.
The Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo in Fort Wayne, Indiana, is a nationally ranked zoo devoted to involving children in the discovery of nature. The park is divided into four sections. The African Journey section allows kids to hand-feed giraffes and soar above the habitat in their Ski Safari experience. The Australian Adventure lets visitors (safely) pet stingrays and float down a river as they observe wildlife and study the life cycle of a crocodile. The Indonesian Rainforest includes an immersive hike through the exhibit and an endangered-species-themed carousel. And finally, the Central Zoo is full of animals (including sea lions!) and a train ride through the property. The Fort Wayne Zoo even offers the chance for guests to intern as a zoo keeper for a day!
According to the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, more than 181 million people visit U.S. zoos and aquariums each year! (That’s more than all the yearly spectators of the NHL, NBA, MLB, and NBA games combined.) And though many argue that zoos are unnatural and inhumane, it’s undeniable that American zoos are some of the world’s leading organizations in animal research and conservation. Have you ever visited a zoo? What do you think? How have the zoos of America saved wildlife? And will they continue to change history?
To learn about some of America’s more unique ways of conserving the natural world, and to discuss whether or not hunting is still relevant or ethical today, watch Season Two, Episode Five, “Field to Fork”, on your local public television or at pbs.org/show/reconnecting-roots.