History of Roger Williams Park Zoo

History of Roger Williams Park Zoo

A snapshot of a turn-of-the-century Roger Williams Park Zoo.

Roger Williams Park Zoo was among the first zoos in the nation, opening its first exhibits in 1872.

In 1986, Roger Williams Park Zoo became the first zoo in New England to earn accreditation from the Assocation of Zoos and Aquariums.

One of the first zoos to open in the United States, Roger Williams Park Zoo was founded in 1872 with a collection of small animal exhibits throughout Providence’s newly formed Roger Williams Park. Conservation and environmental education were unknown concepts at the time; the animals were simply on display.  Since then Roger Williams Park Zoo has grown both in terms of its exhibits and its mission.  What started as a scattered collection of small animals on display purely for the purpose of entertainment has today evolved into “New England’s great zoo” ( The Boston Globe) and one of our region’s foremost centers for conservation and environmental education.

Historical Timeline

Betsey Williams bequeathed her 102-acre farm to the City of Providence for public use in memory of her great-great-great-grandfather, Roger Williams, the founder of Providence. At the time, Providence had little open public space, and there was a growing desire to establish places where people could enjoy nature and escape the daily pressures of urban life.

A "menagerie" of small animals and birds was brought to a section of the park so that visitors could get a closer look at wildlife. Raccoons, guinea pigs, white mice, squirrels, rabbits, hawks, peacocks and anteaters were on display. This led to the official designation of this portion of Roger Williams Park as a "zoo." Roger Williams Park Zoo was one of the first zoos to open in the United States.

The City of Cranston ceded additional acreage to Providence to expand the park properties.

The City of Providence approved a comprehensive plan designed by renowned landscape architect Horace Cleveland to develop the park.

Massive work projects began to develop the Park as we know it today.

Opening of The Menagerie building where a wide variety of exotic creatures including a tiger, a leopard and a pair of lions were exhibited. This building, later converted to a birdhouse, is today the beautifully restored gift shop.

Completion of an elephant barn, the year that Alice, the zoo's most famous resident, arrived. A series of "Alice's" followed after 1967 when the first Alice died, continuing to the present day.

The Zoo consisted of a number of animals exhibited in different areas throughout the entire Park. Bison, deer, and bears were housed on the hill across from the Dalrymple Boathouse and sea lions swam in the pool below the Casino.

Sophie Danforth founded the Rhode Island Zoological Society, the nonprofit organization that supports and manages the Zoo.

All the animals were moved inside a newly-fenced compound; this centralization greatly improved security, maintenance, and husbandry conditions. 

The Zoo closed to embark upon a two-year upgrade project. 1980 marked the rebirth of the Zoo, when it reopened with a new Nature Center, its popular polar bear exhibit, a boardwalk through a native wetlands area, and a North American bison exhibit.

The Zoo earned accreditation from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) – the first zoo in New England to do so.

The former stable building was renovated and renamed the Sophie Danforth Center in honor of the tireless efforts of the Rhode Island Zoological Society’s founder. The building houses Society administrative offices, and until 2011 it was home to the Zoo's veterinary hospital.

The Zoo’s rebirth continued with the opening of a series of major exhibits including The Plains of Africa, The Marco Polo Trail, and Australasia.  In addition, the Zoo hosted a wildly popular robotic dinosaur exhibit in 1992, 1994 and again in 1997.

A Master Plan was formally completed and adopted to assure the Zoo would continue to exemplify best practices in animal care, conservation and environmental education for many years to come, and to improve the visitor experience. 

Voters approved a $4 million bond which, along with a number of significant private donations and grants, helped with initial improvements to the elephant/giraffe facilities. 

The Society and the City of Providence created an operating agreement that fully transitioned management of the Zoo to the Society, which also funds about 70% of the facility’s annual budget. 

The zoo’s polar bear exhibit was closed and ultimately converted into a splendid new American bald eagle exhibit, adding a new species to the collection of conservation success stories featured in the North American exhibit area.

A capital campaign was announced and voters approved an $11 million bond in support of the Master Plan. Additional fund raising through grants and private donations will continue through completion of the remaining projects which include additional improvements to the Africa exhibit, the new veterinary hospital, the children’s Zoo and the planned opening of a new polar bear exhibit.           

A giant anteater exhibit was added to the Tropical America exhibit area, pathways were improved and new interpretive signage and a docent exploration station were completed to focus on animal adaptations.

That same year, our Feinstein Junior Scholar New England Wetlands Trail was significantly improved with new boardwalks and bridges being raised above flood level, new interpretive signage and a docent exploration station.

The major overhaul of the Fabric of Africa exhibit was completed, with the addition of wild dogs, wildebeests that share the enclosure with zebras, a significantly enhanced elephant yard and a renovated and expanded Textron Elephant and Giraffe Pavilion. 

Preliminary utility work for a new veterinary hospital and future exhibits was completed. Ground was broken for Hasbro’s Our Big Backyard, a nature play and exploration area for children and their families.

The John J. Palumbo Veterinary Hospital, dedicated by Sophie Danforth and Stephanie Chaffee, was completed. It features 55% more square footage than the previous facility, and appropriate and separate facilities for each medical function. The setting for the new hospital is set apart from other zoo operations, providing a quieter area for the care of sick and quarantined animals as well as excellent access to a dedicated service road and secured gate.

Hasbro’s Our Big Backyard, a major new exhibit area opened. This outdoor play and exploration area includes the CVS Caremark All Kids Can Treehouse; a greenhouse for education programs and a variety of events; Our House, with education program space and The Nature Swap, a “trading post” that fosters interaction with nature; plus a “backyard” with a number of unstructured play areas.

In addition, three new animal exhibits opened, Sichuan takin, king vulture and red river hogs. These are currently the only representatives of each species on exhibit in New England.

The Zoo’s first venomous snake exhibit opened in the spring to showcase the timber rattlesnake species, which is the focus of one of the Zoo’s important conservation initiatives.

The Big Backyard and Treehouse encourage play that children can do with materials at home. During the area next to the Backyard will be developed into an enhanced nature playscape.The hillside will contain cave structures for children to crawl in, and items like tree stumps and boulders will provide climbing and jumping areas.  There will be “starter –structures” made of logs and branches for fort building, with loose-materials like sticks, grasses, vines and burlap that allow children to personalize their special place.  Play Partner volunteers will maximize unplanned or opportunistic teaching moments with local wildlife living freely in the zoo.  Exploration bins will provide tools like magnifying glassed and binoculars to deepen the learning experience, while circle-time areas help patrons and volunteers further explore wildlife and natural materials people discover on a daily basis.