Lions And Zoos

The History of the San Antonio Zoo

The San Antonio Zoo announced in February the monumental return of the gorillas, back to the menagerie after 30 years away from the noble creatures. Three decades might seem like a long time, but the history of the zoo itself extends far beyond the day the last gorilla was decided to leave San Antonio for good (or so they thought) and rest. at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo.

So when did the San Antonio Zoo first open its doors and how did it evolve into what it is today? Keep reading for a historical look at one of the country’s oldest zoos, which also happens to be one of the city’s most popular family attractions.

The opening of the San Antonio Zoo


The year 1914 is the year in which the Brackenridge Park Zoo owes its entry into the world. San Antonio is a military town, in the United States, the aphorism goes, so it’s only fitting that the 100-plus-year-old institution was shaped by a military man.

Colonel George W. Brackenridge deeded the park to the city in 1899. Brackenridge, a townsman, was also known to have served as the University of Texas’ most senior regent. Fifteen years after the park was born, he officially donated his animal collection and the zoo came into being, built from the limestone quarries that San Antonio settlers used to build some of San Antonio’s historic sites. .

Brackenridge’s arc, different from Noah’s, featured buffaloes, elk, deer, monkeys, a pair of lions, and four bears. From there, the attraction set in motion. However, before this motley crew came together, other zoological businesses were already operating in the city.

Although it may not look like it now, the zoo that once occupied San Pedro Springs Park is considered the city’s first municipal zoo. It officially operated from around 1910 to 1915, but according to archival records, animal exhibits existed in the park as early as the mid-1800s. In addition, a small collection of animals – namely ostriches and alligators – also existed in Hot Wells, which at the time served as a luxury destination for Hollywood’s elite.

In November 1929, two of the nation’s first “cageless” exhibits debuted at the zoo we know today. The Barless Bear Terraces and Primate Paradise offered visitors a boundless viewing experience of bears and primates – curious creatures for our southern subtropical enclave.

The addition of Friedreich’s Aquarium

The post-war year of 1948 was another landmark for the San Antonio Zoo, as it was the year the Friedreich Aquarium was established – dedicated to the name of Richard Friedrich, president of the Zoological Society of San Antonio.

When he first appeared on the scene, he was said to “enhance the reputation of the town of Alamo”. The aquarium stood alone in the city until SeaWorld opened to the public in 1988.

“Already the Queen of the Army and Air Force, the new San Antonio Aquarium built by the San Antonio Zoological Society is the second such exhibit west of the Mississippi River and one of 12 in the United States,” read the San Antonio Express in November. 13, 1948.

That same year, local newspapers featured some of the zoo’s other popular attractions. At the top of the list was a nine-year-old fast-talking Indian Myna bird named Jackie.

A June article in the San Antonio Express described through his eyes the bird’s relationship with zoo curator and educator Fred Starke.

Jackie was the most talkative bird in the zoo.

San Antonio Express Archive

“I arrived at the office much earlier than usual one morning and the Myna tilted her head to one side, looked me straight in the eye and said, ‘What are you doing? here ?’ I laughed and told him I had some important business to take care of. Then I took some papers out of the desk and started to leave and the bird said, “You sure didn’t stay long .”

Popular attractions in San Antonio Zoo

In the 1950s and 1960s, Brackenridge Park became very popular. The introduction of the San Antonio Zoo Train in 1956 was a big hit, as was the park’s gondola ride, which took off in the 1960s.

The Brackenridge Park Sky Ride in June 1993. For 35 years, the attraction near the San Antonio Zoo has offered visitors breathtaking views of the downtown San Antonio skyline.  The sky ride was launched in 1964 and ceased operations in 1999.

The Brackenridge Park Sky Ride in June 1993. For 35 years, the attraction near the San Antonio Zoo has offered visitors breathtaking views of the downtown San Antonio skyline. The sky ride was launched in 1964 and ceased operations in 1999.

Archive photo from the Express-News

During this time, the zoo began to grow in scale. In 1966, the Hixon Bird House, funded by Colonel Frederick C. Hixon, was established. Today it houses one of the largest collections of birds in the world.

Significant Moments in the History of the San Antonio Zoo

Throughout the 70s, 80s, and 90s, the San Antonio Zoo continued to remain an active force contributing to the city’s history. In 1972, the first white rhino born outside Africa was born at the zoo. And during the 1980s, the zoo housed the third-largest collection of animals in the world, according to News Archives.

A photo taken of the elephants at the San Antonio Zoo in the 1980s.

A photo taken of the elephants at the San Antonio Zoo in the 1980s.

Craig Hartley/San Antonio Express-News

Some famous animal incidents also happened at the San Antonio Zoo, including the death of Sam in 1982, a rhesus monkey who was the third monkey in history to explore space after a rocket trip aboard the LJ spacecraft -2 in 1959.

In 1983, a 500-pound gorilla named Mopie made headlines when he severely attacked a zookeeper who was cleaning up his quarters. And nearly 10 years later, the zoo has ended its popular elephant ride after a fatal incident involving an elephant throwing a man with its trunk.

Mopie, the zoo's last gorilla, moved to the Smithsonian National Zoo in 1990.

Mopie, the zoo’s last gorilla, moved to the Smithsonian National Zoo in 1990.

JB Hazlett/San Antonio Express-News

The zoo’s elephant population has also long come under scrutiny, with activist groups claiming their habitat is not large enough to accommodate the large species, while the zoo has pushed back against such claims.

In the 1990s, Primate Paradise was moved, due to issues with combat and monkey breeding. But today, zoo primates are part of the newly expanded Africa Live section.

The addition of the Africa Live exhibition

The two-phase Africa Live exhibit, which opened in 2007, is home to a host of sub-Saharan species, which thrive in San Antonio’s hot, humid climate. Nile hippos and crocodiles were the first new species to be introduced. The second phase of the project, which began in 2010, brought Angolan colobus monkeys, okapis, African hunting dogs, rock hyraxes and various species of birds.

How the San Antonio Zoo Keeps Growing

Spanning over 50 acres, the San Antonio Zoo continues to grow in Brackenridge Park, which is currently going through a new era of change with the proposed Sunken Garden Theater expansion plan.

Under current CEO and President Tim Morrow, the zoo is home to 750 species. For years, the facility has been an active force in various conservation efforts, and some of the animals that live at the zoo are currently endangered or extinct in the wild.

A baby Francois' Langur, born April 3, 2005, emerges from the grasp of its mother Zoey at the San Antonio Zoo.

A baby Francois’ Langur, born April 3, 2005, emerges from the grasp of its mother Zoey at the San Antonio Zoo.

J. MICHAEL COURT/SPECIAL AT L’EXPRESS-NEWS

Entering the second decade of the 21st century, more than 100 years after Brackenridge donated his private land to the city and his personal collection of animals to the park’s first zoo, the nonprofit continues to thrive. .

Looking ahead, reintroducing gorillas to the area means a $15 million project that will result in a one-of-a-kind two-acre gorilla habitat known as Congo Falls. If all goes as planned, this will be one of the largest gorilla habitats in the United States