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.


You May Also Like
Read More

On Resiliency; Part 1

Recent articles published by Ross Exo Adams, Bruce Braun, and Marc Neocleous, in response to two major works on resilient design, the Rising Current's show at MoMA in 2010 and the more recent Rebuild By Design show illustrate that "resilience", is not necessarily the all-positive, progressive and knowledgeable term that I had once embraced.

Daniel Arsham’s Animal Architecture

...we can speculate about various readings of the kind of alien logic of geometry, math, and by extension mankind in the face of nature, or the apparent illumination (divine / cerebral illumination) of the natural by the geometric or we can muse about what the donkey might be thinking in the presence of an object that presumably it cannot possibly fathom...
Read More

BioCity on NPR

Recently Ned Dodington spoke with NPR station KUHF, Houston Matter's Paige Phelps about the BioCity installation on display at Lawndale from January 22, 2016 to June 11, 2016. Check out the interview below!
Read More

Other Coworkers: Animals in the Workplace

History would suggest that a coworking relationship between humans and nonhumans is rarely equal and is typically characterized by subjugation, sadness, and a controlled population expansion of “useful” species. GBHB demonstrates that another more equitable, more beneficial, more respectful cross-species coworking environment is possible.

Batumi Aquarium

Inspired by the characteristic pebbles of the Batumi beach, continually shaped by the wash of the waves through millennia, the building stands out as an iconic rock formation visible from both land and sea.