In 1872, Andrew Erkenbrecher and several other residents created the Society for the Acclimatization of Birds in Cincinnati to acquire insect-eating birds to control a severe outbreak of caterpillars. A collection of approximately 1,000 birds imported from Europe in 1872 was housed in Burnet Woods before being released. The ‘Acclimatization Society of Cincinnati’ was established in 1873 as similar organizations with imperial aims proliferated in Moscow, Berlin, London and Melbourne in the late nineteenth century.
The Zoological Society of Cincinnati established a zoo, consisting of just over sixty-five acres in the cow pasture known as Blakely Woods. The land was purchased by Andrew Erkenbrecher and leased to the Zoological Society for 99 years. This site was acquired in 1874 and the zoo officially opened its doors to the public on September 18, 1875, making the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden the second oldest intentionally constructed zooin the United States. The Zoo opened with 769 animals on display. Admission was 25 cents for adults and 15 cents for children.
Founded by Jonathan Schoonover of Cincinnati and designed by the landscape engineer Theodor Fundeisen, The Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden was originally named the Cincinnati Zoological Gardens. Architect James W. McLaughlin, who constructed the zoo’s first buildings, designed the earliest completed zoological exhibits in the United States. The Zoo’s original animal collection consisted of eight monkeys, two Grizzly bears, three White-tailed deer, six raccoons, two elk, a buffalo, a Laughing Hyena, a tiger, an American alligator, a circus elephant, and over four hundred birds, including a crow. The zoo also is home to some common peafowls.
The first guide book about the Cincinnati Zoo was written in 1876 in German. The founders of the zoo, including its first general manager, were German immigrants and the city had quite a large German-speaking population. The first English-language edition (illustrated) was published in 1893.
In 1878, the first sea lion was born in captivity, and the first pair of giraffes were acquired by the zoo (Daisy and Abe).
In its first 20 years the zoo experienced many financial difficulties, and despite selling 22 acres (8.9 ha) to pay off debt in 1886, it went into receivership in 1898. The Cincinnati Zoological Company was able to bring the zoo out of receivership and keep it going. The Cincinnati Traction Company purchased it in 1901 and operated the zoo for 16 years. In 1917, the Cincinnati Zoological Park Association, funded by donations from philanthropists Mary Emery and Anna Sinton Taft, took over management of the zoo. In 1932 the city purchased the zoo and now runs it through the Board of Park Commissioners.
In 1931, Robert J. Sullivan permanently loaned the zoo a female gorilla named Susie. Captured in the Belgian Congo, Susie was first sold to a group of French explorers who sent her to France. In August 1929, Susie was transported from Europe to the United States aboard the Graf Zeppelin accompanied by William Dressman. After Susie completed a tour through the United States and Canada with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, Sullivan purchased Susie for $4500.00 and loaned her to the zoo. Dressman, who stayed on as Susie’s trainer after she was loaned to the zoo, taught her how eat with a knife and fork and orchestrated two performances every day. Susie was so popular that on her birthday on August 7, 1936, more than 16,000 visitors flocked to the zoo. Susie remained one of the most popular animals at the zoo until her death on October 29, 1947. Her body was donated to the University of Cincinnati, where her skeleton remained on display until it was destroyed in a fire in 1974.
In 1951, the original Monkey House was converted into the Reptile House.
In addition to its live animal exhibits, the zoo houses refreshments stands, a dance hall, roads, walkways, and picnic grounds. Between 1920 and 1972, the Cincinnati Summer Opera performed in an open-air pavilion and were broadcast by NBC radio.
In 1987, parts of the zoo were designated as a National Historic Landmark, the Cincinnati Zoo Historic Structures, due to their significant architecture featured in the Elephant House, the Reptile House, and the Passenger Pigeon Memorial. The Zoo’s Reptile House is the oldest existing Zoo building in the country, dating from 1875.