The word zoo is short for zoological garden or park. The idea of zoos is not new, but the look and purpose of zoos has changed over the centuries.

Earliest beginnings

Queen Hatshepsut ©Getty Images

Queen Hatshepsut ©Getty Images

More than four thousand years ago, Queen Hatshepsut of Egypt made a garden for animals that her soldiers brought back from other countries, animals that were not known in Egypt. This is the first zoo recorded in history. About 500 years later, the Chinese Emperor Wen Wang designed a huge garden, which was called the Garden of Intelligence. It was in fact an enormous zoo spread over about 600 hectares (1500 acres). After this, many small zoos were set up across Northern Africa, India and China by kings or emperors to show how rich and powerful they were.

The ancient Greeks had zoos in order to study animal behaviour. Students were expected to visit zoos as part of their education. They paid to get in.

Centuries later, in the 18th and 19th Centuries, European explorers sailed in search of new lands, and brought back new plants, wonderful spices and fabrics, and strange creatures. The animals were kept in cages in big gardens. These early zoos were all private: ordinary people did not visit them. They were for rich people and the special guests they wanted to impress.

The Beginnings of Modern Zoos

The idea of the zoos as we know them began when a public zoo was set up in Paris in 1794,  the purpose of which was scientific research and education. Ordinary people were able to visit and see the animals. This same idea was used when the London Zoo was set up in 1828.

The Melbourne Zoo, opened in 1860,  was the first zoo in Australia. That same year saw the opening of the first zoo in the United States, the Central Park Zoo in New York. Animals, even big cats and apes, were all kept in cramped concrete cages with bars or wire fronts.

zoo_elephant ride.jpg

In those early days, people did not know very much about animals from other countries, so they could visit a zoo and look in amazement at animals that must have seemed so strange to them. They were fascinated by the similarity of apes to humans, and at some zoos people would gather to see and laugh at chimpanzee 'tea parties', where the apes were dressed in clothes and had teapots, teacups and food. There were also elephant rides at many zoos. Early 20th Century zoos were more about entertainment for the ordinary people.

Asian elephants kept in a more natural setting ©kidcyber

Asian elephants kept in a more natural setting ©kidcyber

Developments and changes

Zoos began to change. People became more familiar with animals from all over the world, through books then films and TV.  Ideas aboutanimal cruelty and about better ways of how to house animalsstarted to change gradually, and nowadays zoos build exhibits that create a natural habitat as similar as possible to the animals' natural habitats. This encourages animals to behave more closely to how they would in the wild. In some places there are exhibits for nocturnal animals: in the daytime when visitors are there, special lights make it seem like moonlight. When the visitors go home, the lights change so that it is like daytime, and the animals go to sleep as they would in the wild.

A baboon exhibit in a modern zoo ©kidcyber

A baboon exhibit in a modern zoo ©kidcyber

Conservation focus

Things started to change in the 1970s when experts began to realise that some animals and habitats were becoming endangered. They started to talk about conservation. Gerald Durrell was one of the leaders of this movement, and he started the Jersey Zoo. He and others like him thought that zoos could help by becoming active in conservation programs. There are now special breeding programs for endangered animals, and zoos around the world work together, guided by people who oversee each program.

Przewalski horse released back into the wild in Mongolia. ©Getty Images

Przewalski horse released back into the wild in Mongolia. ©Getty Images

21st Century zoos

As well as working for conservation of endangered species, modern zoos educate people about animal behaviour and habitats, and about the environment. They help research animal species and conditions. They bring people into contact with nature. Some breeding programs in zoos have resulted in some species of endangered animals being gradually re-introduced back into the wild. This is only done once numbers increase and a safe place is created in the wild.  In Australia, eastern barred bandicoots and orange-bellied parrots are among those regularly released. Przewalsky (say sheh_val-ski) horses are another species being successfully released into the wild. In China,  giant pandas bred at a breeding centre are now being slowly released into the wild.

Open range zoos and animal parks

Giraffes in an open range zoo ©kidcyber

Giraffes in an open range zoo ©kidcyber

In 1931, Whipsnade zoo in England opened the first wild animal park. The park has very large areas for its animals.

Wild animal parks, or open range zoos, allow animals to roam in large spaces. They can run or climb, herd animals can be together as they would in the wild, and the animals can live more closely to how they would in the wild.  Visitors are in cars or buses, so they are the ones enclosed.

There are open range zoos in Australia, such as Werribee Open Range Zoo in Melbourne, Western Plains Zoo in New South Wales and Monarto Zoo in South Australia. There are open range zoos in the USA and Europe also.

White rhinoceros at an open range zoo©Getty Images

White rhinoceros at an open range zoo©Getty Images

Disapproval of zoos

There are people who think that zoos should not exist, believing that it is cruel to keep animals captive rather than free in their natural wild habitat. However, that wild habitat is in many cases no longer safe or disappearing. Others do not disagree with the idea of zoos, but worry in case zoo animals are unhappy or bored. They are concerned that animals in a zoo may not be able to behave in a natural way as they would in the wild.   

Modern zoos do a valuable job in conservation, and in educating people about endangered habitats and the animals that live in them. 

One thing is certain: at a time when a huge percentage of the world's animal species are under threat or in a very real danger of extinction, the work that zoos do in conservation is vital.

Read more about zoos and why they matter:

Read the kidcyber page, which also has links to pages about some threatened species:

Threatened species