History of Roger Williams Park Zoo
History of Roger Williams Park Zoo
Roger Williams Park Zoo was among the first zoos in the nation, officially opening 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.
Roger Williams Park Zoo is founded so that park visitors can get a closer look at wildlife. The first exhibits consist mostly of small animals including raccoons, guinea pigs, white mice, squirrels, rabbits, hawks, peacocks and an anteater.
A Menagerie Building is opened, exhibiting a wide variety of exotic creatures including a tiger, a leopard and a pair of lions. The Zoo’s first elephant, Roger, joined the Menagerie in 1893. (Today, this beautifully restored building houses the Discover the Wild gift shop.)
An elephant barn is built to house Alice, the Zoo's second elephant and most famous resident. A series of "Alice's" followed over the years in her honor. Today you can find the current “Alice” in the recently renovated and refurbished elephant exhibit with her two companions, Kate and Ginny. The original elephant barn has since been converted to become the Tropical America building, home to Rhode Island's only “rainforest.”
The Zoo grows to include more animals, but they are still exhibited in nondescript areas throughout the entire park. Sea lions live in a pool on a hillside below the Casino, while bison, deer and bears are housed behind crude fences on park grounds. There are still no admission gates or naturalistic habitats.
Sophie Danforth founds the Rhode Island Zoological Society (RIZS), the nonprofit organization that still supports and maintains the Zoo today. A Providence resident and wildlife enthusiast, Danforth remains one of the Zoo’s greatest champions today. Her vision for what the Zoo could be with the help of the Rhode Island Zoological Society ushers in a period of tremendous change and growth for the Zoo.
Thanks to funding raised through the Rhode Island Zoological Society, the Zoo’s animals are moved inside a newly-fenced compound for greatly improved security, maintenance, and husbandry conditions.
The Zoo closes to embark upon major upgrades.
The Zoo enjoys a “rebirth” as it reopens with a new nature center, its iconic polar bear exhibit, a boardwalk through a native wetlands area, and a North American bison exhibit. Exhibits exemplified the new emphasis on naturalistic enclosures for collection animals.
Early – Mid 1980’s
Momentum continues with the opening of dozens of new exhibits, restoration of the Zoo’s beautiful historic buildings and attraction of nationally recognized top-quality staff in education and animal care.
The Zoo earns accreditation from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) – the first zoo in New England to do so.
The rebirth continued through the late 1980’s and through the 1990’s with the opening of The African Fishing Village, Elephant / Giraffe Pavilion and Plains of Africa (1989-1991), a new cheetah exhibit (1993), The Marco Polo Trail (1996) and Australasia – Where Worlds Collide Where Worlds Divide (2000). In addition, the Zoo staged a major robotic dinosaur seasonal exhibit in 1992, 1994, 1997 and 2000, each time boosting attendance in excess of an additional 100,000.
2000 - 2006
At the start of the 21st century, the Zoo embarked on an aggressive strategic planning process and master plan 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. The master plan was formally completed and adopted in March 2001. A number of significant private donations and grants were secured and voters approved a $4 million bond in 2004 to help with initial improvements to the elephant/giraffe facilities. An operating agreement and lease was signed between the City and Society in 2005 that fully transitioned management of the Zoo to the Society. In 2006 a capital campaign was announced and voters approved an $11 million bond.
The zoo’s iconic 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. It was anticipated that a new, much larger polar bear exhibit would be constructed in future as part of the master plan.
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. This will open in two phases. In 2012 a greenhouse for education programs and special events, a cottage with education program space and a nature interactive center, a “backyard” with a number of unstructured play areas, and a fully accessible CVS Caremark All Kids Can Tree House filled with interactive activities will open. In 2014, the final phase of this exhibit will open, a New England animal exhibit featuring river otters, lynx, turkeys, owls and porcupines.
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 removed 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.
The sustained regional economic downturn has led the Zoo’s leadership to conclude that the fourth planned project, construction of a polar bear exhibit with significantly expanded indoor holding and outdoor space and a saltwater pool with costs ranging from $15 – 20 million, is not feasible. Instead, in response to visitor demand for big cats, Zoo management is engaged in preliminary planning for a tiger exhibit. In addition, numerous new animals are being considered as exciting additions including but not limited to African red river hogs, king vultures, takins, venomous snakes, vampire bats, moose, additional monkeys and a walkthrough lorikeet exhibit where visitors can feed a flock of these colorful and playful birds.