A new western television series starring Pierce Bronson aired in April. The kiddo wanted to watch the 2-hour premiere, so I watched with him, and lost interest after the 1st hour. I didn’t like the characters and I especially didn’t like the blood, guts and gore. But within that 1st hour, a line struck me as odd. Brosnan’s character goes back and forth from 80-year old Eli to teen Eli kidnapped by a native tribe. The kidnapping scene begins with Eli and his brother and sister helping their mother set the table for dinner. They live out in the middle of nowhere, and as all siblings do, the three were bantering harmlessly when the brother asks Eli if he was raised in a zoo. I’ve heard the expressions born or raised in a barn, but never a zoo, which got me to thinking. Did the United States even have a zoo in 1849? If so, where? And how would a child living in the vast western part of the U.S. learn of such an establishment?
The Philadelphia Zoo was the first zoo in the United States. Situated along the western bank of the Schuylkill River and chartered by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, opening day was July 1, 1874, delayed from March 1859 due to the start of the Civil War. The cost to see the 1,000 animals on display was 25 cents. The zoo was enclosed by a stone wall. Animals were housed behind picket fences, to include buffalo, deer, wolves, foxes, bears, monkeys, reptiles and an Indian elephant. Birds were another attraction, as were goat cart rides. A carriage house to stable horses bringing visitors to the grounds sat near the entrance. Briefly, the zoo was home to animals brought over on safari for the Smithsonian Museum, which had not yet built the National Zoo. The zoo itself, the façade columns of the original stone walls, wrought iron fence entryway and the carriage house are still in existence today.
The oldest zoo west of the Mississippi River is the Oregon Zoo. The Oregon Zoo is in Portland and was founded in 1888 with two bears owned by Richard Knight. Originally from England, Knight was a seaman turned pharmacist. He opened his pharmacy along the Williamette River and began collecting animals from his sailor friends, to include parakeets, monkeys and other small animals. He kept those animals in the back of his drug store and staked two bears in the vacant lot next to him. When the care and feeding of the animals became too much, Knight tried to sell the bears to the city. City officials wouldn’t buy them. Instead, they gave Knight two circus cages and let him display the brown bear and the grizzly bear in City Park, now Washington Park. Knight still had to take care of the bears, and five months later, he offered to donate the bears to the city. City council accepted this offer, to include the cages, and this became the official start to the Oregon Zoo, with Charles Myers as the first zookeeper. Today the zoo is owned by the Regional Metro government.
The Philadelphia Zoo and the Oregon Zoo were founded many years after Brosnan’s character was kidnapped by Native Americans. To answer my question of how he would’ve known about a zoo, I dug further and found teachers back in that timeframe were required to pass a lengthy exam before they were allowed to teach. They had to be knowledgeable in a variety of subjects, to include history. And the history of the zoo is lengthy, dating back to 2400 B.C. when Shulgi ruled Ur, in what is present day South-East Iraq. Though not a zoo of modern standards, Shulgi is the first person known to house a collection of animals. The first zoo by modern standards was established by Queen Hatshepsut in 1500 B.C in Egypt. The queen collected animals from all parts of Africa. Later, Chinese Emperor Wen Wang built his own zoo to highlight his wealth and power. Wang’s zoo was named Garden of Intelligence, occupied 1,500 acres, and included animals from all over his empire. After him, Vienna Emperor Franz Josef built a zoo for his wife in 1752. This is oldest zoo in existence today and was originally built as an imperial menagerie.