Zoo: A Brief History Part 1

The history of the zoo is both expansive and detailed, present in some form at almost all times in human society. It is no surprise then that the story of zoos can reflect larger trends in humanist and extra-humanist thought. In that light, we are happy to present for your reading enjoyment a series of posts about zoos throughout the ages.
Image above, Mantegna’s Triumph of Caesar (1506)

This summer Travis San Pedro, our very gifted research assistant has composed a brief history of the Zoo for Animal Architecture. While AnArch. doesn’t make a pointed focus to study zoos or zoo architecture it is one of the most researched and searched terms on the website. We hope the following serialized posts will prove to be insightful, enlightening and just might answer a few of your questions.


The Age of Curiousity: 4000 BC – 17th CENTURY

by Travis San Pedro

The history of the zoo is both expansive and detailed. Culled from Eric Baratay’s and Elisabeth Hardouin-Fougier’s “Zoo A History of Zoological Gardens in the West,” what follows is a very broad look at the zoo’s development throughout the ages with the hope that one receives a general understanding of its evolution into its present form.

The earliest accounts of hunting and/or controlling the flow of animals can be found in Egypt and China, with records dating from the fourth and fifth millennium. Soon after, a propensity to display animals ceremonially or kill them for feeding or sporting purposes developed in kingdoms and empires from India and Persia to the Aztecs and the Romans. Yet it wasn’t until the thirteenth-century when King Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor, began to collect animals as curiosities and trophies did the idea of what we know today as a zoo begin to arise. It is from him where we may trace the desire to own wild animals, be they native or exotic, which grew widespread among European aristocracy from the late fourteenth to eighteenth-centuries.

From the fifteenth until the eighteenth-century, animals outside of aristocratic collections were used as symbols of stately power – they could be found in parades with the intent of inspiring the public. It was during this time-period that animals were also assembled for interspecies fights for entertainment. As imperial expansion grew, so did the number and types of “exotic species” throughout the fifteenth and sixteenth-centuries increasing a desire to show and exhibit these natural curiosities.

The printing press, introduced around 1440 further disseminated a growing interest in newly imported species; And, as the Scientific Revolution began at the end of the Renaissance the desire to collect strange and novel species from around the world increased dramatically. Initially, the hobby of collecting began as a way for the nobility to distinguish itself from the lower classes, with specimens placed in what was known as a ‘cabinet of curiosity’. Access to aristocratic menageries and cabinets of curiosities remained restricted through the sixteenth-century, mainly accessible only to owners and their friends. For the most part public knowledge of new species was due to showmen who traveled between towns and fairs throughout Europe showing animals to the public. This was the age of curiosity and unforgivable cruelty to animals, subject to petty Human  interests. Soon, however a new attitude towards biological life would gain traction around the western world.


Main Resource:

Baratay, Eric and Hardouin-Fugier, Elizabeth. Zoo: A history of Zoological Gardens in the West. Reaktion Books (May, 2004).


“Musei Wormiani Historia”, the frontispiece from the Museum Wormianum depicting Ole Worm‘s cabinet of curiosities.


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