While the modern idea of a zoo kicked off in 18th century Europe, the keeping of exotic animals is nearly as old as human civilization.
The oldest menagerie we’ve found existed around 3500 BCE in Hierakonpolis, Egypt. Hierakonpolis’ zoo consisted of over one hundred animals, including elephants, hippos, baboons, and wildcats. Archaeological evidence of healed bone fractures, steady diets, and religious burials suggests that the animals were well-kept. Moving further into the future, exotic animals continued to be a hallmark of the Egyptian elite. Ramses II was said to have a lion that would follow him into battle. Hatshepsut kept rhinos, giraffes, and monkeys in her own menagerie. The practice would continue into the dark ages.
The East also had it’s share of menageries. In 1150 BCE, the Chinese Empress Tanki founded China’s first zoo, the “House of Deer”, although honor of owning the largest zoo in China went to Zhou Wen Weng’s academic “Garden of Intelligence”, a 1500-acre animal refuge.
Europe’s zoos started in Greece. By 500 BCE, many Greek states had acquired their own private collections. These zoos were enlarged by Alexander the Great. As his armies conquered, Alexander collected, sending exotic animals back to Greece.
However, the most spectacular, and most dangerous, animal collections probably belonged to Rome. The colosseum played home to crocodiles, bears, tigers, lions, hyenas, giraffes, elephants and more. Many were simple exhibits or circuses, but many were used for bloodsport. With the fall of Rome, public spectacles seem to have declined, although private menageries continued throughout Asia, Europe, and even the Americas.
Zoos are rapidly becoming one of the major ways that people relate to the natural world. Some may see them as uncomfortably modern idea, but it is worth remembering that they are as old as we are.