Our History

Our History

In 1872, Roger Williams Park Zoo, the country’s third oldest Zoo, opened its doors to the public 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.

Today, Roger Williams Park Zoo provides visitors the opportunity to see animals from all over the globe – some more than a million years old. Naturalistic surroundings are home to more than 160 species of animals including a Komodo dragon, as well as zebras, red pandas, African elephants, Masai giraffes, snow leopards, bears, anteaters, flamingoes, sloths, alligators, and more!  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. In 1986, Roger Williams Park Zoo became the first Zoo in New England to earn accreditation from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
 

Historical Timeline
1871 - 1930

1871
Betsey Williams bequeaths her 102-acre farm to the City of Providence for public use in memory of her great-great-great-grandfather (and founder of Providence) Roger Williams. At this time, Providence has precious little open public space, and there is a growing desire to establish places where people can enjoy nature and escape the daily pressures of urban life.

1872
A collection of small animals and birds is brought to a section of the park, allowing visitors to get a closer look at wildlife. Raccoons, guinea pigs, white mice, squirrels, rabbits, hawks, peacocks and anteaters are displayed in this new “Menagerie”. This leads to the official designation of this portion of Roger Williams Park as a "zoo”, one of the first certified zoos in the United States.

1873
The City of Cranston cedes additional acreage to the City of Providence to expand the park properties.

1878
The City of Providence approves a comprehensive plan to develop the park designed by renowned landscape architect Horace Cleveland.

1883
Massive work projects begin to develop the Park as we know it today.

1890
The Menagerie building opens, exhibiting a wide variety of exotic creatures including a tiger, a leopard, and a pair of lions. This building, later converted to a birdhouse, is today home to Discover the Wild gift shop.

1930
The Zoo's first elephant barn for Alice, the Zoo's most famous resident, opened.

1960s - 1990s

Early 1960s
During this period, the Zoo consists of a number of animals exhibited in different areas throughout the entire Roger Williams Park. Bison, deer, and bears are housed on the hill across from the Dalrymple Boathouse, and sea lions swim in the pool below the Casino.

1962
Sophie Danforth establishes the Rhode Island Zoological Society, the nonprofit organization that supports and manages the Zoo to this day.

1965
All animals previously displayed throughout Roger Williams Park are relocated to a newly fenced-in compound; This centralization greatly improves security, ease of maintenance, and husbandry conditions.

1978 - 1980
The Zoo temporarily closes to embark upon a two-year upgrade project. 1980 marks the rebirth of the Zoo, reopening with a new Nature Center, a massively popular polar bear exhibit, a boardwalk through a native wetlands area (today the Feinstein Junior Scholar Wetlands Trail), and a North American bison exhibit.

1986
Roger Williams Park Zoo earns accreditation from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), becoming the first zoo in New England to receive that honor. The renovated former stable building is renamed the Sophie Danforth Center in recognition 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.

1990s
The Zoo’s rebirth continues with the opening of a series of major exhibits including The Plains of Africa (1993), The Marco Polo Adventure Trek (1996), and Australasia (2000). In addition, the Zoo hosts a wildly popular robotic dinosaur exhibition in 1992, 1994, and again in 1997.

2001 - 2009

2001
A Master Plan is formally completed and adopted to insure the Zoo will continue to exemplify best practices in animal care, conservation, and environmental education, while simultaneously keeping visitor experience at the forefront.

2004
Voters approve a $4 million bond which, along with a number of significant private donations and grants, help fund initial improvements and renovations to the elephant/giraffe facilities.

2005
The Society and the City of Providence reach an operating agreement that fully transitions management of the Zoo to the Society, which also funds about 70% of the facility’s annual budget.

The Zoo’s popular polar bear exhibit closes. This space will later reopen as an American eagle exhibit, adding new species to the collection of conservation success stories featured in the North American exhibit area.

2006
A capital campaign begins, and voters approve an $11 million bond in support of “The New Zoo” Master Plan. Additional grants and private donations provide funding for improvements to the Fabric of Africa exhibit, as well as the construction of a new veterinary hospital and outdoor play space.

2007
A new giant anteater exhibit opens in the Tropical America exhibit area.  Additional improvements include renovated pathways, new interpretive signage, and a docent exploration station, all focusing on animal adaptations.

The Feinstein Junior Scholar New England Wetlands Trail adds new boardwalks and bridges above flood level, new interpretive signage, and a docent exploration station.

2008
A major reconstruction of the Fabric of Africa exhibit is completed allowing wild dogs, wildebeests and zebras to share their enclosure. The elephants and giraffes move to a significantly enhanced yard and a renovated and expanded Textron Elephant and Giraffe Pavilion.

2009
Preliminary utility work for a new veterinary hospital and future exhibits is completed. Ground is broken on Hasbro’s Our Big Backyard, a nature-based play and exploration area for children and families.

2011 - 2019

2011
The John J. Palumbo Veterinary Hospital, dedicated by Sophie Danforth and Stephanie Chaffee, opens, featuring 55% more square footage than the previous facility and separate facilities for each medical function. The new, secluded location of the veterinary hospital provides a quieter area for the care of sick and quarantined animals as well as excellent access to a dedicated service road and secured gate.

2012
Hasbro’s Our Big Backyard opens. This outdoor play and exploration area includes the CVS Health 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. The also installation also boasts a “backyard” section with a number of unstructured play areas.

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

2013
The Zoo’s first venomous snake exhibit, “The Snake Den” opens, showcasing the timber rattlesnake species, an area native and the focus of one of the Zoo’s important conservation initiatives.

The hillside next to Hasbro's Our Big Backyard becomes the site of an enhanced nature play space. The area contains cave structures so children may crawl inside the structure, as well as appropriate climbing and jumping zones. There are “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 maximize unplanned or opportunistic teaching moments with local wildlife living freely in the Zoo. Exploration bins provide tools like magnifying glasses and binoculars to deepen the learning experience. Finally, circle-time areas help patrons and volunteers further explore wildlife, and natural materials.

2014
The summer-long exhibit “Flutterby: Butterflies in Bloom” returns to the Zoo, providing guests with an immersive experience inside the greenhouse next to the Big Backyard, filling the area with hundreds of free-flying butterflies.

Construction is completed on the Outback Trail exhibit. Guests can cross over a rustic bridge and along a path through the middle of the Zoo’s kangaroo and wallaby exhibit.

The ALEX AND ANI Farmyard opens with a walkthrough barn to the public, and interactive features like a Contact Yard where people may pet and feed goats and sheep. Animals include goats, sheep, Guinea hogs, silver fox rabbits, a miniature donkey, chickens, and barn owls.

2015
In 2014, voters approve a bond issue allocating $15 million to the Zoo for future improvements. The first step is the development of a new Zoo Master Plan, stating the Zoo's continuing efforts to exemplify best practices in animal care, conservation, environmental education, and visitor experience for years to come.

Money from this bond help fund to build a new Rainforest building, as well as a new education center with double the capacity of the existing building. The current Meller-Danforth Education Center will become New England’s first reptile house. 

The Zoo announces Tree Kangaroo Awareness Month to celebrate the opening of its new Matschie’s tree kangaroo exhibit in the Australasia building, making the new baby, Holly, visible to the public for the first time. The second phase of the ALEX AND ANI Farmyard opens, featuring the Farmhouse Stage, chickens, and Flemish giant rabbits as well as additional interactive play opportunities. Additionally, the Zoo takes over management of Roger Williams Park Carousel Village.

 

Inspired by the efforts of Zoo Conservation Director Lou Perrotti, a group of elementary school students successfully spearhead a campaign leading to the official designation of the American Burying Beetle as the official state insect of Rhode Island in 2015.

2016
Preparations for the new Rainforest officially begin in November. The animals in the Tropical America building are moved to the greenhouse, while the kangaroos and wallabies are moved to World of Adaptations for the duration of the renovation. 

2017
New animals join the Zoo family including New England's only Komodo dragon, Kunekune pigs, American alligators and Watusi cattle.  In September the Soaring Eagle Zip Ride takes flight, allowing visitors to ride 115 feet high above the Zoo with views of the City of Providence and Narragansett Bay. Construction continues on the new Rainforest building in anticipation of a 2018 opening.

2018
The Faces of the Rainforest exhibit opens in November 2018 as part of Phase One of the Zoo's 20-year Master Plan.  The beautiful exhibit urges visitors to become a "face" of the Rainforest, and learn what steps everyone can take to help protect the flora and fauna of the South American Rainforest.

2019

Construction is underway for new Commissary and Quarantine buildings, and planning for the new Education Center begins. The Zoo receives the 2019 North American Conservation Award from AZA for the New England Cottontail Rabbit and Recovery Program in conjunction with Queens Zoo. 

2020 - Present

2020
The Zoo’s new commissary building is fully operational, allowing for the preparation of healthy, nourishing diets for the over 150 animals that call the Zoo home.

Thanks to support from the city of Providence and Rhode Island Commerce’s HArT Recovery Grant Program, the Zoo launches its first-ever Holiday Lights Spectacular - soon to become an annual tradition.

2021
Roger Williams Park Zoo partners with Hanart Culture to put on its first Asian Lantern Spectacular-- a walk-through event featuring over 50 dazzling, hand-crafted lantern displays inspired by wildlife and wild places. 

Construction is completed on a new Veterinary Quarantine building, allowing new arrivals to the Zoo to acclimate and adjust in a comfortable, state-of-the-art environment.

Conservation Director Lou Perrotti receives the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s prestigious “Recovery Champion” award for his tireless work with the Service, state agencies, and local partners to protect the American burying beetle and to ensure its persistence into the future.

The Greenhouse is once again home to a seasonal exhibit as “Shades of Nature” introduces visitors to Elsa the albino alligator and asks—“Why blend in when you can stand out?”