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The Philadelphia Zoo

Posted on Thursday, January 21, 2016
America’s First Zoo

The History

Long before America had its first Zoo, its citizens were paying to view animals.  Rickett’s Circus, America’s first circus, opened in 1793 at 12th and Market Street here in Philadelphia. Audiences that even included then President of the United States, George Washington were entertained by impressive horse riding shows and dog tricks.  Showmen across America would even charge admission to see exotic animals at museums and general stores dating back to 18th Century, but it was not until the London Zoo opened to the public in 1847 that Americans began to think of opening a zoo.  Due to the effort of William Camac, a Philaelphia doctor, the Pennsylvania State Legislature established a nonprofit Philadelphia Zoological Society in 1859, making it America’s first zoo.  
William Camac was able to secure 30 acres for the Philadelphia Zoo in Fairmount Park along Girard Avenue.  The land centered upon a 1784 mansion overlooking the Schuylkill River that was built by John Penn, the grandson of Philadelphia founder, William Penn.  The neoclassical mansion which was named “The Solitude” was once host to President George Washington and still stands today as a tourist attraction within the Philadelphia Zoo.  Renowned architect Frank Furness was hired to design the Victorian gates and gatehouses at the entrance of the Zoo, which still stand today.  The Philadelphia Zoological Society also collected 813 animals to display in the Zoo.  The Civil War’s outbreak in 1861 prevented the opening of the Philadelphia Zoo until July 1, 1874, but once it finally opened, the Zoo was an instant success, attracting over 228,000 visitors in its first year.
Frank Furness designed Philadelphia Zoo Gatehouses - Credit: Jim, the Photographer
As the first zoo in America, the Philadelphia Zoo was often at the forefront in zoological innovation.  The Philadelphia Zoo became recognized as one of the top zoos in the world, not just for their impressive and entertaining collection of animals but also due to their scholarly work and their success in breeding animals in captivity.  It was at the Philadelphia Zoo that the first successful attempts at breeding orangutans, chimpanzees and cheetahs in captivity took place.  Before the National Zoo opened in Washington D.C., the Smithsonian Institute chose to house their collection of animals in the Philadelphia Zoo.  In 1901 the Philadelphia Zoo opened a first of its kind animal health laboratory to care for its animals.  

What to See

Today the Philadelphia Zoo is an incredible modern zoo filled with great exhibits where you can see animals in their native habitats.  Over 1,300 rare and endangered animals are currently housed in the Zoo and they are seen by 1.35 million visitors every year.  As you walk through the Philadelphia Zoo you’ll feel as you’re transported across the world as each area mimics the look and feel of each animal’s natural habitat.  In the African Plains exhibit you’ll see a wide variety of African animals including rhinoceros, giraffe, and hippos.  In other exhibits like Bear Country, you’ll see a collection of animals from across the world including Polar Bears from the arctic and Andean bears from the mountains of South America.
In recent years, the Philadelphia Zoo has afforded animals an unprecedented amount of freedom and autonomy with the introduction of its Zoo360 trails.  These trails allow animals such as gorillas, tigers, lions, lemurs and orangutans to explore the Zoo through a series of interconnected elevated passageways.  By providing animals the ability to undertake long-distance travel and offering a greater variety to their environment, the Philadelphia Zoo continues to lead the way in the field of zoological care.  And while these elevated exploration trails provide a great benefit to the animals, it’s also great for guests at the zoo.  There’s nothing quite as exciting as suddenly noticing a tiger is crossing a passage right above your head!
Niagara Big Cat Falls at the Philadelphia Zoo
While the Philadelphia Zoo opened the first children’s zoo in America back in 1938, today the Philadelphia Zoo is home to a brand new children’s zoo called “KidZooU.”  At the award winning KidZooU, children are given the opportunity to learn about animals in an interactive area designed just for them.  Children are given the opportunity to pet and even groom some animals.  KidZooU also helps to educate children on the importance of conservation and protecting endangered animals. 


Insider Tips

One of the most popular attractions at the Philadelphia Zoo is actually an attraction that doesn’t contain any animals, the 6abc Zooballoon.  The Zooballoon allows visitors to rise to heights of 400 feet in a hot air balloon.  Originally meant to be a temporary attraction when it first began operating in 2002, the Zooballoon proved so popular that it has become a permanent fixture at the Philadelphia Zoo.  The Zooballoon not only provides guests with a great look at the many animals below in the Zoo but also incredible sights of the Schuylkill River, Fairmount Park and the Center City skyline.
6ABC ZooBalloon
Please note that the Zooballoon only flies when weather conditions are permitting.  Call ahead to ensure that the Zooballoon is operating.  Tickets can purchased the day of your visit, directly in front of the ZooBalloon entrance.


How to Get There

The Philadelphia Zoo is located in West Philadelphia on Girard Avenue.  For guests of The Constitutional Walking Tour, the easiest way to get to the Philadelphia Zoo after taking our historical tour is probably by riding “Philly Phlash,” a seasonal transit program for tourists run by the Independence Visitor Center located at 6th and Market Streets.  The Philly Phlash will take visitors from historic Old City to the Philadelphia Zoo while stoping at other tourist attractions along the way and an all day pass for unlimited rides can purchased for only five dollars.  The route 15 Girard Avenue Trolley also has a stop directly in front of the Zoo.  The Zoo is also easy to reach by car and has ample parking for all guests.  For guests of The Constitutional Walking Tour who enjoy exploring by foot, the easiest and most beautiful path to take is the 3.5 mile walk through Fairmount Park to Girard Avenue.  


November 1 – February 29
9:30am to 4:00pm
March 1 – October 31
9:30am to 5:00pm


Additional Information

3400 W Girard Avenue
Philadelphia, PA 19104
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