The History of Bristol Zoo Gardens

Bristol Zoo is the oldest in the UK and was founded in 1835 by a physician. This animal welfare society looked after animals from Bristol, Clifton, and the West of England. The founder of the Zoo, Riley, met with several other interested parties to discuss the idea. This meeting had 3 objectives: observing animal habits, providing rational amusement, and developing enjoyment for recreational visitors to the zoo. Shareholders at the time included famous Bristolians such as Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

Bristol Zoo Gardens has been transformed multiple times since it first opened in 1836. It was during the 1980s and 1990s that these changes really started to make Bristol Zoo what it is today.

Conservation at the Zoo

The Zoo was successful at integrating with global conservation strategies and local communities. As a result, the Zoo now has a leading role in the 21st Century. The Bristol Zoo Gardens have preserved not only architectural aspects but also the prioritising of fun, education and engagement in conservation.

The zoo has been open to the public since 1836 and as a result of our conservation work, we have helped over 175 species from going extinct. Additionally, we have established over 30 field projects all around the world which support research and conservation efforts. The zoo has so far introduced 40 million young people to the values of conserving the natural world and given more than 90 million visitors a great day out.

Despite it being the first time the public was able to visit, on July 11th 1836, Bristol Clifton & West of England Zoological Society open its doors for public access. The zoo’s location in a port helped it to acquire animals from all around the world when it first opened. Notable ones include Zebi, an elephant from 1868-1909. She gained fame for removing and eating people’s hats!

The Lion House

In the year 1900, a house was built for the lions. The zoo was a popular event venue during the 1920s and 30s, hosting a variety of different events that in turn benefitted the zoo. This included fetes, carnivals & amusements, and fundraisers for war efforts. One of the Zoo’s most popular attractions during those days was Rajah the elephant. He arrived at the Zoo in 1913 and lived there for 13 years.

The Zoo introduced its aquarium in 1935 and the Polar Bear enclosure also opened that year. Alfred the gorilla arrived at the Zoo in September of 1930. He was one of two gorillas in European zoos at this time. Alfred was a huge success at the Zoo, he loved to make snowballs so much that it became a tradition to take him around on a lead just so that he could have extra time outside. Alfred grew not only in size but also in popularity during the Second World War and became a very popular animal at Bristol Zoo.

Breeding Successes

Bristol Zoo has been fruitful over the years, with many successes. The first chimpanzee to be born in Europe was Adam in 1934.

The first polar bear cub, Sebastian was born in 1958 and proved to be a huge attraction. The Zoo in the UK kept okapi animals in the early ’60s and became the first zoo in the UK to successfully breed okapi animals too, back in 1967. Bristol Zoo no longer has the Okapi, but it does have four in its conservation program.

A pair of white tigers were first acquired by Animal House in 1963. Due to this, we rebuilt the Lion House for them so they could roam more comfortably. Two years later, we bred these cats and they produced two cubs. At the beginning of the 1980s, we made a decision to focus on endangered animals. At that point in time, this included animals such as Asiatic lions, white tigers and others. The elephant which inhabited World Wildlife Zoo until 1961 died after twenty-three years. She gave over 80,000 rides to children every year. She was replaced by Wendy, an Asian elephant. Christina, the last African Elephant sadly died in 1986.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the zoo started to become what it is today with some substantial new exhibits – like the Reptile House (1981), Monkey House (1983) and Aquarium (1986). Penguin Coast was opened at the end of the 20th century, by Professor David Bellamy.

In the early 2000s, we opened three new exhibits: Zona Brazil, Livingstone fruit bat enclosure and the ZooRopia high ropes course. Although each of these attractions is popular in its own right, they make visitors to our zoo feel like true explorers. The £1 million redevelopment project was completed in 2013 and has more than doubled the size of the gorilla house. It also includes a 180-degree viewing area for guests to get up close with these six cute creatures. Jock and the other gorillas can now be seen looking out on guests from their enclosure, which features a heavy-duty toughened glass screen.

This content has been written by DPH Legal, a Bristol solicitor specialising in an employment law firm in the South West of England.

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