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Schönbrunn Zoo: The history of the oldest zoo in the world

Schönbrunn Zoo: The history of the oldest zoo in the world

Vienna is home to the oldest zoo in the world, which has battled through revolution, war and changing attitudes to conservation to reach its 270th anniversary

Vienna has no shortage of impressive old buildings, and many people are familiar with the likes of the Burgtheater, one of Europe’s oldest theatres, the incredible spire of St Stephen’s Cathedral which dates back to 1137, and the neo-Gothic Rathaus building, which is Vienna’s City Hall.

But did you know that Vienna is also home to the world’s oldest zoo?

The oldest zoo

At the site of today’s zoo, a collection of animals has been growing from a hunting menagerie since the 1500s, but Schӧnbrunn Zoo was only officially recognised when Emperor Franz I Stephan visited it in 1752.

"Schӧnbrunn Zoo was only officially recognised when Emperor Franz I Stephan visited it in 1752"

When the general public were first allowed to visit from 1778, it was only on Sundays, and they had to be "decently dressed" to gain admission.

Last year, the zoo celebrated its 270th birthday, which makes it the oldest continually running zoo in the world.

UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site

Archive sepia photo of Schonbrunn zoo in Vienna, circa 1910Courtesy of Tiergarten Schönbrunn, Archiv. Schönbrunn Zoo sits in the Schönbrunn Palace grounds, a UNESCO heritage site

As well as being the oldest zoo in the world, Schӧnbrunn Zoo lies in the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Schӧnbrunn. In the 18th century, Schӧnbrunn Palace was the residence of the powerful Habsburg family.

The site’s baroque gardens house not only the zoo, but also Roman ruins and an impressive palm house, an incredible 114-metre-long glass house built in 1880.

Historical difficulties

Old archive black and white photo of Schönbrunn Zoo circa 1930, view of lion enclosureCredit: Löwen, courtesy of Tiergarten Schönbrunn, Archiv. The 1930s saw the zoo's buildings expanded, before multiple animal houses were destroyed in WWII

Several conflicts have affected Austria during the zoo’s history, and it would be hard for the zoo to avoid being caught up in them, but in 1848 during the Austrian Empire revolutions, the animals survived Vienna’s artillery bombardments unscathed.

By the start of the First World War, Schӧnbrunn Zoo was one of the largest zoological collections in the world. The zoo housed over 3,500 animals but, sadly, only around 400 of these were still alive at the end of the war.

"Aerial bombs destroyed whole animal houses and killed over one thousand resident animals"

The future of the zoo looked uncertain but changes in management and donations of animals and materials helped the restoration project.

The 1920s and 1930s saw new buildings going up and an expansion of the zoo’s grounds. Things were starting to look brighter, but the Second World War brought with it the end of peacetime for both humans and animals.

Aerial bombs destroyed whole animal houses and killed over one thousand resident animals and, once again, the zoo faced extensive reconstruction work to survive.

Becoming one of the most successful zoos in the world

A slump in the 1980s saw visitor numbers fall as some of the facilities and husbandry practices became outdated but, since then, the zoo has gone from strength to strength.

Today, Schӧnbrunn Zoo strives to meet the challenges of caring for a huge array of animals to the highest standards, while also preserving the Schӧnbrunn World Heritage Site. It has won the award for Europe’s Best Zoo six times in recent years.

Protecting endangered species

Good modern zoos aim to contribute to nature conservation in the wild and protect the species that they look after in captivity.

Some of the ways zoos do this are by providing financial support to conservation projects in the wild, educating visitors about conservation issues, inspiring visitors to take action and spread the word, contributing to conservation breeding programmes, and taking part in scientific research to improve our knowledge and understanding of wild animals and their habitats.

One of Schӧnbrunn Zoo’s goals is to provide ample habitat for native species, and a recent survey, conducted by the Vienna Natural History Museum, found that 86 wild bee species visit the zoo’s grounds.

Schӧnbrunn Zoo manages land in Vienna Woods to protect breeding areas for rare corncrake birds as well as preserving the biodiversity of the delicate meadows.

"86 wild bee species visit the zoo’s grounds"

It also supports a reintroduction project for the Ural owl, which became extinct in Austria in the middle of the 20th century.

Now, with added protection and improvements in their natural habitat, Ural owls have been reintroduced to forests in Austria, with many going on to successfully reproduce and raise their own offspring.

Further afield, Schӧnbrunn Zoo supports the work of Hutan, a charity that works hard to protect orangutans and their habitat in the Kinabatangan forests in Sabah, Borneo, by contributing financial support and using the orangutans living in Schӧnbrunn as ambassadors for their relatives in the wild.

The future

Giant panda at Schönbrunn zooSchönbrunn Zoo manages multiple nature conservation projects, including the rehabilitation of the Giant Panda

Today, Schӧnbrunn Zoo houses over 700 different species of animals, receiving more than two million visitors each year. Some of their star residents include the giant pandas and koalas, but there are many other interesting areas, including the aquariums and terrariums and monkey houses.

An excellent treetop walkway showcases efforts to protect native Austrian wildlife, as well as offering wide views across the zoo and beyond, to Schӧnbrunn Palace and the city of Vienna.

It may already be 271 years old, but it looks like Schӧnbrunn Zoo intends to stick around for a long time yet.

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