Early Years of the Denver Zoo

It all began with a special gift to the mayor of Denver, a black bear cub that came to live at City Park. Early visitors to the growing zoo enjoyed watching animals like monkeys, elk, bison and birds. With the opening of Bear Mountain in 1918 Denver Zoo became the first American institution to benefit from Carl Hagenbeck’s revolutionary zoo concept, that people should see animals at eye level in natural habitats without bars or fences. This ground-breaking exhibit features artificial rock formations produced using plaster casts from natural cliffs near Morrison, Colorado and is now on the National Register of Historic Places.

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The Middle Years

Denver Citizens Support Growing Zoo

From the 1920’s through the late 1950’s, Denver Zoo continued to grow. In 1936 Monkey Island was added to the zoo with the support of federal funds. In 1950 Denver citizens supported the zoo through contributions to bring the first elephant, Cookie, to the facility. She lived for nearly a decade in the City Park Pump House before the new Pachyderm Building was completed in 1959.

In 1956 the Denver Zoological Foundation signed an agreement with the City and County of Denver to oversee the administration, management and development of Denver Zoo. In 1959 the zoo’s first master plan was released and provided a map for future enhancements at Denver Zoo. The opening of the Feline House in 1964 trumpeted a new beginning for the future of Denver Zoo and was the most dramatic new exhibit opened since Bear Mountain in 1918.

A Plan for the Future

First Master Plan Guides The Zoo

Guided by the master plan, Denver Zoo continued to flourish with creative new ways to connect zoo guests to the diverse animals living at the zoo. In 1975 Bird World opened to great fanfare as visitors were able to feel rainforest mist, view mountain waterfalls and sandy shorelines in an open-air aviary featuring dozens of bird species.

Northern Shores brought the wonders of the aquatic life to Denver in 1987 and provides zoo guests with an underwater vantage point to watch the graceful beauty of seals, sea lions and polar bears.  The final piece of the 1959 Master Plan was put into place in 1993 with the addition of Tropical Discovery, an immersive experience that surrounds visitors with a world of steamy jungles and coral reefs and that is home to hundreds of fish, amphibians, invertebrates and reptiles, filling a conspicuous void in the zoo’s collection.

Gates Center

Commitment to Education and Conservation

With a partnership from the Gates Family Foundation and the Colorado Division of Wildlife, Denver Zoo was able to create the Gates Wildlife Conservation Education Center.  This building is a home base for the zoo’s array of on-grounds and outreach education programs for people of all ages presented by a dedicated group of staff and volunteers who are passionate about the zoo’s mission. The Gates Center is also home to Denver Zoo’s Conservation Biology Department. Created in 1996, this team oversees critical projects all over the world.

Leaders in Animal Management

A Plan for the Next Millennium

Denver Zoo created a new master plan to guide the continued development of the facility through the beginning of the new millennium. This carried the momentum of improvements of the 1959 Master Plan. The Millennium Master Plan oversaw the development of Primate Panorama with two phases, one in 1996 and one in 2002, a new main entrance welcoming guests immediately to the award-winning Predator Ridge in 2004, and Toyota Elephant Passage in 2012. These improvements to Denver Zoo have affirmed its place as a leader in exhibit design and visitor experience. The rotational exhibit concept introduced in Predator Ridge has been mimicked in exhibits all over the world, and was improved upon for Toyota Elephant Passage. This concept allows different species to be seen in the exhibits at different times by rotating animals through multiple habitats. This stimulates their minds, expands their experiences and provides important exercise opportunities.

A Commitment to the Future

Denver Zoo's Vision of Excellence

Denver Zoo is currently working on developing an updated master plan to continue to improve our ability to care for our animals and provide our visitors with excellent experiences each time they visit. We hope that each visit inspires our guests to find ways to connect with animals and support our mission of inspiring communities to save wildlife for future generations. Watch for details coming soon about this exciting new guide for the future of Denver Zoo.