More than a century ago, philanthropist Christopher Lyman Magee donated $125,000 for the construction of a zoological garden in Pittsburgh's Highland Park neighborhood. On June 14, 1898, the Pittsburgh Zoo opened its gates to the public, providing visitors with a rare glimpse of animals and plants they had never seen before. Fitting in with the paradigm of the day, the Zoo resembled more of an animal menagerie than it does today. Through the years, however, the Zoo has transformed itself, incorporating naturalistic habitats for a great variety of species, as well as becoming a resource for conservation, education, and research.
This evolution began in 1937 with the addition of outdoor bear exhibits. In 1949, Pittsburgh's first Children's Zoo opened--thanks to a generous grant from the Sarah Mellon Scaife Foundation. In the 40 years that followed, children delighted in the charming and imaginative exhibits--like walking into the mouth of whale with its soft spongy tongue, and the giant hunk of cheese that was home to dozens of mice. When the AquaZoo opened in 1967, it was the only public aquarium in Pennsylvania and the second largest aquarium in the country at the time.
The Zoo's Master Plan for recent renovations began in 1980. The next decade completely transformed the Zoo. Exhibits were recreated into naturalistic habitats, enabling animals to roam as they would in the wild while providing a more pleasant and informative experience for Zoo visitors. The Asian Forest, which opened in 1983, was the first area of the Zoo to utilize this new philosophy. The African Savanna followed, featuring seven major exhibits in an African landscape, opening in 1987.
In 1991, the Zoo opened the Tropical Forest, a five-acre indoor rainforest housing 16 primate species and more than 150 types of tropical plants. Also that year, the Children's Zoo was renovated into a Children's Farm, featuring domestic animals and animal care demonstrations. Niches of the World, an underground indoor exhibit, reopened its doors in 1992 as the home for reptiles, amphibians, and small animals.
In January of 1994, the Pittsburgh Zoo became a private non-profit organization, owned and operated by the Zoological Society of Pittsburgh. The transition from a city-run public zoo to a private institution has been a major reason for the Zoo's successes.
In 1994, the Zoo's Education Complex was built, creating space for five classrooms, a library, and a 300-seat lecture hall, furthering the Zoo's mission of conservation and education. The Zoo's administration offices also are located here. Kids Kingdom, the completely renovated children's zoo, opened in 1995 and was further enhanced by the addition of the Discovery Pavilion in 1997. A $17.4 million state-of-the-art aquarium opened in 2000, doubling the number of aquatic animals at the Zoo. In 2002, the Zoo celebrated the expansion of the Education Complex. The roof was raised and a second story was built, providing more classrooms, teacher resource areas, and an animal holding area. The building was modified using several green practices.
Water's Edge, a thematic neighborhood with the ambiance of a small coastal fishing village, opened in 2007. This interactive exhibit gets visitors up close with polar bears, sea otters, and sand tiger sharks. It invites them to learn more about animal habitats, as well as their connections with the environment and the ways they can help to protect it.
In 2015, the Zoo proudly unveiled The Islands, a 22,000-square-foot exhibit that offers an immersive island atmosphere with cascading waterfalls, ponds, and the unique sounds of endangered animals. Featuring animals native to island atmospheres around the world, including Philippine crocodiles, Galapagos tortoises, Visayan warty pigs, siamangs, and clouded leopards, the area also offers a beach with sand, beach umbrellas, and an oversized Adirondack chair. The Islands is the first neighborhood to open as the Zoo continues to develop the final six acres of land, with plans for more thematic neighborhoods to open in the coming years.
According to President & CEO Dr. Barbara Baker, the Zoo's growth can be traced to one thing: commitment. "Our staff is deeply committed to making sure our Zoo not only maintains the standards already set, but strives to improve the exhibits and the lives of our resident animals every day," says Baker. "This makes the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium a safe haven for the animals that live here, and provides visitors with a unique zoo experience."
The Zoo's remarkable growth in attendance, exhibitry, research, education, and conservation efforts are sending it roaring into the future.