Category Archives: Philadelphia

“America’s First Zoo”

110920121347359878If you grew up in the Delaware Valley, chances are you took a trip to the Philadelphia Zoo at some point in your life. Whether it was with your school, your summer day camp, or your family, a zoo trip was and still is a veritable rite of passage in this area. So, when was the last time you ventured over to the Philadelphia Zoo? My husband and I enjoy visiting the Philadelphia Zoo in the morning during a weekday, especially in the off-season. There is rarely a crowd, and the Zoo staff, eager for some for conversation, will talk to you for as long as you want. We have found most of the staff at the exhibits to be very friendly and knowledgeable. The Philly Zoo also has scheduled “Meet the Keeper” events throughout the day. Here are a few of our favorite animal shots from our most recent trip in March:

Aside from the animals, the thing I love most about The Philadelphia Zoo is its rich history. The Philly Zoo bills itself as “America’s First Zoo,” which is true on a technicality. The Zoological Society of Philadelphia was chartered on March 21, 1859, though the actual grand opening did not occur until July 1, 1874.


19th Century sketch of Philadelphia Zoo entrance and gatehouses ©Philadelphia Zoo

The Philly Zoo has had many other “firsts” along the way. Some of their achievements include the addition of the first children’s zoo in the western hemisphere (1938), the first successful birth of an orangutan in a Unites States zoo (1928), and the first successful birth of a chimpanzee in United States zoo (1928).  Another interesting tidbit is that Jackie (AKA LEO), the first MGM lion to roar in those famous opening credits, retired to the Philly Zoo in 1931. You can read more about Jackie/Leo’s incredible story at and see more of the Zoo’s accomplishments via their timeline.

If you really want a taste of what The Philadelphia Zoo was like during its earliest years, head on over to, where they’ve transcribed a fascinating analysis of the Zoo from an 1879 edition of The Harper’s New Monthly Magazine.The article is accompanied by some wonderful sketches.



The Philadelphia Zoo is both bolstered and hindered by its age. Many of the original buildings still stand, much to the delight of any historian or architectural enthusiast. In particular, the Victorian style gatehouses, designed by famed Philadelphia-area architect Frank Furness, are quite charming. The downside of being an old zoo is that the city grew and expanded all around it, leaving little room for the Zoo to expand. At this point, any new exhibit added comes at the cost of getting rid of an old one. So far, the Zoo has aptly met the challenge of keeping pace with changing societal views on zoos—sometimes voluntarily, and sometimes forcibly.

Tragedy struck the Philly Zoo on Christmas Eve, 1995, when the Primate House caught fire. The Zoo suffered the loss of 23 animals, all of which perished from smoke inhalation in their sleep. The casualties included a family of six lowland gorillas (one of which turned out to be pregnant), a family of three orangutans, four white-handed gibbons, and ten lemurs. Many corporations, individuals, and other zoos contributed funds in the wake of the tragedy, which led to the opening of the PECO Primate Reserve in 1999.

2006 saw the opening of the new $20-million exhibit, First Niagara Big Cat Falls. In this expansive area, visitors can view animals, such as lions, tigers, jaguars, and leopards, in exhibits that are more reminiscent of their natural habitats. The old big cat building was preserved as part of the exhibit.

Original Big Cat building

Original Big Cat building

One of the biggest controversies the Philadelphia Zoo has faced in recent years surrounds the elephants. The elephants have long been fan favorites at the Philly Zoo. At the main entrance, after your ticket is scanned, one of the first sights you are greeted with is a large elephant sculpture. For decades, the Philadelphia Zoo had audio storybooks at many of their exhibits, which could only be activated by a Zoo Key, shaped like an elephant. Alas, the storybooks are gone, and so are the elephants. After dealing with years of protests from animal rights groups, the Philadelphia Zoo decided that they could no longer meet the modern standards for keeping elephants in captivity, and sent their elephants onto greener pastures in other zoos across the nation. It was the right decision. Having seen the modern, expansive environments provided to elephants in zoos like The San Diego Zoo  and The National Zoo in Washington DC,  it is abundantly clear to me that the old Philly Zoo exhibit was severely outdated. Thankfully, they preserved the old elephant house as part of the new KidZooU exhibit which opened last year. The old children’s zoo area is currently vacant, and if you speak to the Zoo staff it is no secret that the Philly Zoo would one day love to have elephants back on their roster; however, they would definitely need to do a major overhaul of multiple areas—the old children’s zoo area will not suffice on its own.

The Zoo continues to make improvements and seek out innovative ways to enrich its visitors’ experiences. The latest improvement is the Zoo360 initiative, which provides enclosed walkways for various animals to explore outside of their exhibits and walk above the heads of the visitors. The Treetop Trail features monkeys and lemurs from the Rare Animal Conservation Center and the Great Ape Trail is connected to the Orangutan enclosure. Big Cat Crossing will be officially opening up May 10, featuring—you guessed it—big cats! We were told the Tigers would likely be the first animals encouraged the check out the crossing. I’ve seen some pictures floating around which show a tiger and a leopard separately enjoying the new pathway. We love this idea in concept; unfortunately, we have not yet had the pleasure of witnessing animals using the trails in person. Bad timing, I guess.

Old, deflated Zoo Balloon

Old, deflated Zoo Balloon

One last thing I’d like to note is the resurrection of the 6ABC Zoo Balloon. The Zoo Balloon fell victim to the particularly harsh winter we had this year, and had to be deflated and decommissioned. I took this picture of the old balloon on our last trip. Low and behold, later that very same day the Zoo announced that the balloon would “Soar Once More” and a new balloon was unveiled. I only got to ride in the balloon once, and it was not a particularly nice day; however, I’ve heard that on a clear day you can see all the way to the Jersey Shore. I would like to test the new balloon for myself this spring/summer if I can find a brave soul to go with me (my husband is afraid of heights and spent our one and only zoo balloon experience with his eyes closed, clutching onto the railing for dear life).



New Zoo Balloon Soars over the Polar Bears ©Philadelphia Zoo

The Philadelphia Zoo offers wonderful experiences any time of the year, so a membership is very much worthwhile if you visit more than once a year. Here’s the breakdown: A one-day visit in-season costs $20 per adult and $18 per child. You will also need to pay $15 for parking. For a family of 3, one Zoo visit will set you back $73. A basic family membership, however, only costs $120 and would provide all 3 family members entrance to the park, free parking, and access to members-only areas and benefits. It pays for itself in two visits. Throw in another $40 bucks to get the Family Plus plan and you can bring Grandma and Grandpa along every time you go. You can check out more membership details here:

This overview of the Philadelphia Zoo, past and present, has only scratched the surface. In the future I hope to provide more history on the Zoo and explore its animal conservation efforts more thoroughly.