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

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.

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

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

1960s - 1990s

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, reopening with a new Nature Center, the 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), becoming the first zoo in New England to receive that honor. The renovated former stable building was 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.

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.

2001 - 2009

A Master Plan was formally completed and adopted to insure the Zoo would continue to exemplify best practices in animal care, conservation, and environmental education, while also improving 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 closed. This space re-opened as 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 began, and voters approved an $11 million bond in support of the Master Plan. Additional fund raising through grants and private donations continued allowing the Zoo to make improvements to the Africa exhibit, build a new veterinary hospital, and plan an outdoor play space.

A giant anteater exhibit opened in the Tropical America exhibit area.  Additional improvements included improved pathways, new interpretive signage, and a docent exploration station all focusing on animal adaptations.

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

A major reconstruction of the Fabric of Africa exhibit was completed allowing wild dogs, wildebeests and zebras to share the enclosure. The elephants and giraffes moved into 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.

2011 - Present

The John J. Palumbo Veterinary Hospital, dedicated by Sophie Danforth and Stephanie Chaffee, opened. The hospital 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 opened. 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; plus a “backyard” with a number of unstructured play areas.

In addition, three new animal exhibits opened featuring the 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, the focus of one of the Zoo’s important conservation initiatives.

The hillside next to Hasbro's Our Big Backyard became 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.

The summer-long exhibit “Flutterby: Butterflies in Bloom” returned to the Zoo this season. It provided Zoo guests with an immersive experience inside the greenhouse next to the Big Backyard filling the area with hundreds of free-flying butterflies.

Construction on the Outback Trail exhibit was completed. Guests crossed over a rustic bridge, and along a  path through the middle of the Zoo’s kangaroo and wallaby exhibit, and among the animals.

The ALEX AND ANI Farmyard opened 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.

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

The bond monies are helping to build a new Rainforest building, and 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 announced 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 opened featuring the Farmhouse Stage, chickens, and Flemish giant rabbits as well as additional interactive play opportunities. Additionally, the Zoo took over the management of Roger Williams Park Carousel Village.

Preparations for the new Rainforest officially began in November. The animals in the Tropical America building moved to the greenhouse, while the kangaroos and wallabies moved to World of Adaptations and off-exhibit for the renovation. 

New animals joined the Zoo family including New England's only Komodo dragon, Kunekune pigs, American alligators and Watusi cattle.  In September the Soaring Eagle Zip Ride took off allowing visitors to ride 115 feet high above the Zoo with views of the City of Providence and Narragansett Bay.  The Zip Ride is riding out over the Jack-O-Lantern Spectacular adding a new thrill to a Rhode Island Halloween tradition. The Rainforest building continued to rise from the ground in anticipation of a 2018 opening.

The Faces of the Rainforest exhibit opened in November 2018 as part of phase one of the Zoo's 20 year Master Plan.  The beautiful exhibit urges everyone to become a "face" of the Rainforest, and learn how everyone can protest the flora and fauna of the South American Rainforest.


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.