History of Zoos


"Zoos' past is prelude - it shows how easily empathy falters when beauty and captivity collide."

Examining the history of zoos, we present a solemn look back on troubling practices of the past that do not align with modern values.

Zoos have profoundly transformed from their origins as menageries for the wealthy, where animal welfare was disregarded.

It took generations to develop more ethical standards reflecting our greater scientific understanding and moral progress.

While we cannot undo the suffering caused, we can use history as a lesson to continue advancing compassionate stewardship of the species in our care.

Our treatment of creatures unable to advocate for themselves remains an evergreen marker of humanity's moral stature.


A rich man's private zoo
History Oasis

In Europe, the first zoos emerged as private menageries in the medieval period, as spectacles of power and wealth enjoyed exclusively by royalty and the aristocracy.

The animals were seen as exotic collections to be displayed, rather than living creatures deserving of compassion.

Tigers, lions, bears, and elephants were kept in cramped cages or chained up, with bare stone floors and minimal shelter from the elements.

These creatures often suffered from injury, stress, and early mortality due to the poor conditions and lack of medical care. But this was of little concern to the menagerie owners.

The animals existed solely for the amusement of their high-status visitors.

Some were prodded to perform tricks, while others languished in confinement.

It was not until the 18th century that more public zoos started to open in European cities. But the focus was still on recreation over education.

The cages remained small and barren, doing little to meet the species-specific needs of the animals.

For centuries, the welfare of the creatures on display was sadly an afterthought, subsumed by human entertainment.

It would take much advancement in zoology and animal psychology to develop a more ethical approach.


A human zoo showcasing indigenous peoples
History Oasis

So-called "ethnological expositions" began in the 1870s and 1880s, displaying groups seen as scientifically "primitive" or "exotic"—such as indigenous peoples from Africa, Asia, South America and the Pacific Islands.

These living displays often emphasized colonial propaganda, portraying the cultures as savage or uncivilized to justify imperial expansion.

Individuals were coerced or lured into participating with promises of wages or travel, then confined in artificial villages.

Exhibit organizers regulated their clothing, speech and eating to conform to Western stereotypes.

Millions came to gawk at the human inhabitants.

The cruel exhibits reinforced ideologies of racial hierarchy and cultural superiority among European and American audiences.

Shockingly, such demeaning expositions continued even into the early 1900s.

The St. Louis World's Fair of 1904 infamously displayed over 1,000 indigenous people from Africa, Asia and the Pacific.

Human zoos only declined after World War I, facing new scrutiny over the ethics of putting human beings on exhibit without consent. But the legacy of dehumanization such displays persists.

The disregard for marginalized peoples as objects for entertainment rather than full human subjects is deeply troubling.


George Washington's private zoo
History Oasis

As the commanding general and first president of the fledgling United States, George Washington cut an imposing historic figure.

Less examined is his role as an avid collector of exotic animals at his Mount Vernon estate.

Washington populated his menagerie through a combination of European gifts, agricultural improvements, and aristocratic hobbies.

An African donkey, Maltese jackasses, Hungarian horses, and a Tunisian lion all arrived from abroad as novel presents for a world leader.

Washington's foxhounds supported his riding and hunting as gentry pastimes.

Imported stallions aimed to strengthen American equine bloodlines.

Even the first elephant in the country came to Mount Vernon through a king's donation.

That such a singular politician also engaged in fashionable status displays through animal collecting reveals fascinating contradictions.

Washington straddled both pragmatism and pretense, scientific curiosity and showmanship.

His menagerie ultimately reflected how profoundly the early American elite were influenced by European cultural trends and status markers.


A barless enclosure showcasing a Chimp
History Oasis

Hagenbeck, an animal dealer and trainer from Germany, introduced open moated or panorama-style enclosures at his zoo in Hamburg during the 1870s.

This allowed visitors to view the animals without visible bars obstructing their views, creating a more dynamic spectacle.

The spaces were enriched with some vegetation and landscaping.

However, the facilities were still fundamentally inadequate for housing wild animals for extended periods.

The enclosures were very limited in size and did not satisfy the species' natural roaming, foraging and socialization instincts.

A focus remained on showcasing exotic creatures rather than prioritizing research on their biological needs.

Knowledge of animal welfare science was still in its infancy at this time.

Though Hagenbeck's reforms marked early progress, substantive change in zoo philosophy would wait until the 20th century.

Experts had yet to stress the environmental and behavioral enrichments required for animals to thrive.

While no longer caged, many continued suffering from confinement, boredom and stress. It would take more generations to fully rethink the ethics of keeping wildlife on display.


A zebra on a hunting ranch
History Oasis

Prior to the 1970s, it was common practice for zoos to regularly sell off or trade animals they deemed excess to their collections.

No external regulations limited these transactions, and there was little outcry over the potential suffering caused.

Old, sick, or "useless" creatures were peddled to game ranches, where they would be shot by trophy hunters.

Others were sold as exotic pets or as food for carnivores in private menageries.

Disturbingly, some zoos would even sell aged or ailing animals to companies making pet food.

This provided additional revenue from livestock otherwise thought worthless.

Little concern was given to finding humane accommodations for these creatures who could no longer contribute to zoo attendance or breeding programs.

Their intrinsic worth was disregarded once they were deemed expendable.

It was not until the passage of the Endangered Species Act in 1973 that accountability improved over the sale and transfer of zoo animals.

But for many decades prior, countless living creatures were treated as commodities, valued only for the money they could generate even in death.

The lack of ethical standards allowed great suffering within a system that should have prioritized compassion.


A captured lion
History Oasis

From the 1800s through the 1960s, zoos frequently sent collectors on captures to stock their menageries from the wild.

Little consideration was given to habitat loss or the dwindling of species populations.

The goal was acquiring exotic specimens for entertainment, not managing biodiversity.

Most creatures were taken from tropical regions of Africa, Asia and South America—areas under colonial rule at the time.

Captured animals were subsequently kept in enclosures bearing no resemblance to their home environments.

The complex physical and social needs of each species went unmet. High mortality rates reflected the ignorance of animal welfare science back then.

It was not until the emergence of conservation biology as a field in the 1960s and 70s that zoos began to reform.

More consideration was given to threatened ecosystems and the need to develop breeding programs for at-risk species. But for many generations prior, untold damage was done to fragile populations and habitats in the name of shortsighted collection practices.

The mentality of dominion over nature prevailed.


orangutans dressed up in human clothes
History Oasis

From the 19th century onwards, chimpanzees and orangutans were frequently dressed up in human outfits and made to perform for crowds.

This deeply anthropomorphic behavior denied them their innate animal dignity. Yet it delighted many visitors and reinforced a sense of human superiority.

Trainers coerced the apes using punishment and food deprivation.

The forced routines ran counter to their natural behaviors and family social structures.

Chimps and orangutans were made to ride bicycles, smoke cigarettes, drink tea from cups—all to generate a laugh at these animals’ expense.

We now understand through primatology and cognitive science how complex and emotionally sensitive both species are.

They share over 90% of our DNA.

Forcing apes to pantomime human activities for curiosity and amusement was demeaning and unethical.

It denied their lived experience and fundamental nature.

Thankfully, most modern zoos now aim to create environments suited to primates’ complex needs.

More people recognize the inappropriateness of prior training methods that exploited such intelligent creatures.


An elephant in chains
History Oasis

From the 19th century onwards, elephants were often kept chained by two legs in cramped enclosures with hard, unnatural substrates.

This restricted movement led to painful musculoskeletal issues and psychological distress.

Bears likewise were confined to small concrete pits with minimal natural elements. Neither species could engage in roaming, foraging or natural behaviors intrinsic to their wellbeing.

Zoos of the time prioritized human observational access over the animals' basic needs.

Spatial requirements, environmental enrichments and veterinary knowledge were primitive by today's standards.

Large, imposing creatures were subdued for manageability rather than treated humanely as sentient beings.  

Gradually, a shift occurred valuing species-appropriate care. Immersive naturalistic habitats replaced restrictive cells.

Elephants now often reside in expansive paddocks with soil, brush and pools.

Bears have room to den and climb. But it took generations to understand that such impressive animals deserved far better from their human stewards.

Their strength and power did not justify a disregard for their suffering.

The troubling history of zoos should motivate ongoing advances in enrichment, research and improved empathy toward the magnificent species in our care.