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United States Oldest American Zoo - New York or Philly?

Discussion in 'Zoo History' started by snowleopard, 23 Feb 2020.

  1. snowleopard

    snowleopard Well-Known Member Premium Member

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    Here is an interesting article discussing what zoo was first to open in the U.S. and the answer is complicated. In our book, America's Top 100 Zoos & Aquariums, @Tim Brown and I made the case that Central Park Zoo (1864) was first, followed by Lincoln Park Zoo (1868), Roger Williams Park Zoo (1872) and then Philadelphia Zoo (1874) in 4th place and we are cited as a reference in the essay on the link below. However, due to having a charter in place in 1859, 'Philly' is often called 'America's first zoo'. This article analyzes that statement and there is even an opportunity to vote!

    Zoo Was First—New York or Philly?
     
  2. Coelacanth18

    Coelacanth18 Well-Known Member Premium Member

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    Congratulations on the citation @snowleopard and @Tim Brown. This is something that I've wondered about as well, but this article is the most comprehensive explanation I've seen of what the two zoos looked like in their infancy; thanks to you both for publishing information that helped it get there!

    I'm open to either interpretation of which one was first, but I found it meaningful that Central Park existed more as a haphazardly kept animal collection in a park until the 1930's while the Philadelphia Zoo had a planned infrastructure, professional staff and research institution. Going by a more inclusive idea of a zoo just being a collection of wild animals for public display, perhaps that bear cub tied to a tree in Manhattan was "the first zoo" - but by the standards of a "scientific" or "modern" zoo (as set either by London or the Jardin des Plantes) Philadelphia seems pretty clearly the first in the US to me. Based on that reasoning, I voted for Philly.
     
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  3. TinoPup

    TinoPup Well-Known Member

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    I'm with @Coelacanth18. Central Park was more like some random animals in a park, which was not uncommon at all for the time period (I spend way too much time looking at historical photo archives, having a bear on a stake and a fenced in area of deer and whatnot comes up more than you'd think!). Their first "permanent" structure wasn't until the late 1870s, and the various animals were moved around the park several times. Rather than a true zoo, it was more like a dumping ground for random exotic pets.

    Philadelphia, meanwhile, had an actual plan, and always knew they were going to build a formal zoo. The stretch between the charter and the zoo opening was only because of the civil war, which had a massive impact on the area as southeast PA was the location of many battles. They lost not just man power but building supplies and potential food for the animals, etc. while the war was going on, and then had to spend several years building that up again before they could properly open.

    It's also worth noting that Philadelphia has never closed for any extended period. Central Park has had multi-year closures twice.
     
  4. ThylacineAlive

    ThylacineAlive Well-Known Member

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    I didn't realize Roger Williams was so old!

    ~Thylo
     
  5. snowleopard

    snowleopard Well-Known Member Premium Member

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    I think that both @Coelacanth18 and @TinoPup have valid arguments and it's a tough decision. As I type this the score is 12-11 in favour of Philadelphia and so obviously there doesn't seem to be much in it. Philadelphia's 1859 charter is a great place to start, but by the time the zoo actually opened in 1874 there was Central Park, Lincoln Park and Roger Williams Park all technically open to the public.

    The next trio of zoos would be Buffalo (1875), Cincinnati (1875) and Maryland (1876) to round out a list of 'The Early 7' American zoological collections. It would be 6 more years before both Cleveland and Milwaukee opened in 1882 and then 6 more years after that before others slowly began to make their debut.

    Central Park Zoo - 1864
    Lincoln Park Zoo - 1868
    Roger Williams Park Zoo - 1872
    Philadelphia Zoo - 1874
    Buffalo Zoo - 1875
    Cincinnati Zoo - 1875
    Maryland Zoo - 1876
    Cleveland Metroparks Zoo - 1882
    Milwaukee County Zoo - 1882

    Dallas Zoo is next when it opened in 1888 and it has the distinction of being the country's first 'southern zoo' because all of the zoos ahead of it were based in the northern half of the USA. After Dallas the next 'southern zoo' would be Atlanta (1889) and then there was not another major zoo in the south for many years (that has remained open to this day).
     
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  6. ThylacineAlive

    ThylacineAlive Well-Known Member

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    Bronx opened in 1899, which zoos (that remain open to this day) opened between Atlanta in 1889 and then?

    ~Thylo
     
  7. snowleopard

    snowleopard Well-Known Member Premium Member

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    I provided a list of 9 zoos earlier in this thread and then after that there was Dallas, Oregon, Smithsonian's National Zoo, Atlanta, John Ball, Omaha, Denver, New York Aquarium (on old site), Como Park and Pittsburgh. Bronx and Woodland Park both opened in 1899 and on the final page of my Top 100 American zoo book there is a list of opening dates for all 100 zoos in the book.
     
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  8. TinoPup

    TinoPup Well-Known Member

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    Do you know the opening dates for Dallas and Oregon? Oregon considers itself the oldest west of the Mississippi. I know they opened the same year, but not the actual days.
     
  9. Arizona Docent

    Arizona Docent Well-Known Member Premium Member

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    Dallas and Oregon both say 1888, so it would be a matter of tracking down the exact opening day to see who was first.
     
  10. TinoPup

    TinoPup Well-Known Member

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    Which is what I was asking ;)
     
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  11. CGSwans

    CGSwans Well-Known Member

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    Wikipedia says September for Dallas, and the Oregon Zoo website says November.
     
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  12. zoomaniac

    zoomaniac Well-Known Member

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    I voted for Central Park Zoo. Founding a Zoological Society is not the same as opening a zoo (or a menagerie), no matter how small it was (there is no rule for a minimum of animals a zoo must have to be considered as a zoo). The claim of Philly is like founding a car company but not being able to produce and sell one. Therefore the honor goes to the big apple and not to the big bell.
     
  13. Zooplantman

    Zooplantman Well-Known Member

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    All depends on what your definition of "zoo" is.
    Central Park didn't have much in the 1860s or 70s and didn't claim to be a zoo early on. (I suspect that a diligent researcher could find some wealthy estate owners with more interesting animal collections at the time)
    Philadelphia had nothing but a piece of paper expressing intent to create a zoo.
    This is a non-historical argument that tries to apply contemporary ideas to a historical reality.
     
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  14. Arizona Docent

    Arizona Docent Well-Known Member Premium Member

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  15. Arizona Docent

    Arizona Docent Well-Known Member Premium Member

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    The article (which I just looked at) includes a photo of a blue metal street sign describing Philadelphia as America's first zoo. For those who have not been to downtown Philadelphia, street signs of this style are located around the city describing a number of "Philly Firsts" (as they call them). As a photographer I was keen to stumble across one that describes the location of America's oldest surviving photograph. The city of Philadelphia (home to The Liberty Bell and Independence Hall) has a tourism industry based on this list of "Philly Firsts." This is partly why the Philadelphia Zoo must aggressively defend its title as America's First Zoo - because the city's tourism industry relies on it. (This is an expansion of a brief summary I make in the opening chapter of my 2014 book Zoos of the Southwest).
     
  16. Coelacanth18

    Coelacanth18 Well-Known Member Premium Member

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    @Zooplantman Does the fact that it is viewing historical events through contemporary lenses and terms make it less valuable or informational though? I can agree that ultimately the argument of which was "first" is not intrinsically important nor can it be definitively stated, but it is still interesting to analyze the differences in how they started and compare that to our contemporary ideas of what a zoo is... even if the discussion would have been meaningless during that time period. Maybe an explicit disclaimer on that would have been preferable?

    Also to clarify my earlier thoughts, I was considering Philly's opening in 1874 to be the beginning, rather than the 1859 charter; I agree with ZPM that a piece of paper proclaiming a zoo is not really a zoo. I'm not sure what Roger Williams Park looked like in 1872, but I know that Lincoln Park started out with just a pair of swans - making it similar to Central Park's "bear cub tied to a tree" situation.
     
  17. Zooplantman

    Zooplantman Well-Known Member

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    In my opinion imposing a 21st C (or 20th) expectation of "what is a zoo" on these 19th C events doesn't clarify them... it does give insight, though, into us
    And while crowd sourcing opinions is popular in this case it is a meaningless game
     
  18. Coelacanth18

    Coelacanth18 Well-Known Member Premium Member

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    Interesting; I guess I'm having trouble understanding if you take issue with the way the article's information was framed or the premise of the article itself. I can see your point on the latter; obviously there is no real way to answer the writer's question without imposing our contemporary perspectives and definitions on it, and I agree that the crowdsourcing of opinions isn't meaningful in answering it. From a simply informational standpoint though, I think the article is still valuable for the comparison, the explanation of 19th century terms and what they looked like in practice, and how disagreements arising from those terms and differences led to the lack of clarity today. It doesn't seem like the framing prevented that information from being meaningfully conveyed.
     
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  19. DavidBrown

    DavidBrown Well-Known Member

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    The bottom line is that there was a public non-domestic animal collection (i.e., a zoo) on the ground in New York City a decade before there was one in Philadelphia. Philadelphia can claim maybe to have the first zoo master plan in this country.
     
  20. Zooplantman

    Zooplantman Well-Known Member

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    I found the article, and the author's research, to be very interesting (especially since the history of these early zoos fascinates me). I thought the question itself is a waste of energy.
     
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