- Dublin Zoo, Ireland.

Zoo History

Bull Elephant Rama-1900

Dublin Zoo was opened by the Zoological Society of Ireland in 1831 on four acres of land in the Phoenix Park.  The early collections included monkeys, lions, leopards, bears and parrots.  In 1835, the zoo rented an elephant and a rhinoceros for the summer months.  In 1836, London Zoo gave Dublin an elephant.  Enclosures were rudimentary, designed for containment and to provide visitors with a good view of the animal.  The iconic thatched entrance was built in 1833.

Members of the Zoological Society ran the zoo on a voluntary basis and faced many challenges.  They were entirely reliant on visitor entry fees and membership subscriptions. Initially, the zoo was open to society members, their friends and anyone who could afford the entrance fee of six pence. In 1840, the society decided to open the zoo on Sundays for a penny.  Dubliners responded with enthusiasm and cheap entry was extended to public holidays and evenings. In 1854 the society was given an annual government grant; it was small but put the zoo on a steady footing.  A year later, a pair of lions was purchased.  They first bred in 1857, so starting the lucrative Irish Lion Industry. Over the following 100 years, Dublin Zoo’s lions were sought after by zoos and dealers around the world because they were strong and healthy.  It is possible that the first MGM lion was born in Dublin in 1919.   

In the 1860s, under the wily direction of the society’s honorary secretary, Reverend Professor Samuel Haughton, the zoo extended its boundaries to encompass the lake.  Permanent structures were built with capital grants, including a monkey house, an aquarium, a lion house, and Society House.  The collection grew and the expertise of the keepers developed.  In 1885, for example, the zoo received an orangutan in exchange for four lion cubs. Under the care of Patrick Supple, the orangutan lived for nearly four years. This was a major achievement for the time.

The first half of the 20th century was one of mixed fortunes.  It began with a golden period when Irish people serving in British colonies sent giraffe, baboons, snow leopards and other exotic animals to Dublin Zoo. At the outbreak of the First World War, the society was particularly proud to have a gorilla, a chimpanzee, an orangutan and a gibbon. The zoo struggled through the war and the following years with help from society members, who used personal funds to keep it going.  Remarkably, the zoo became immensely popular during and after the Second World War.  Although the size of the animal collection fell, and food, fuel and replacement animals were difficult to acquire, visitor numbers grew from 173,000 in 1939 to 343,000 in 1950.  At the same time, tickets for fund-raising breakfasts, dinners and dances were in such demand that people joined the society in order to obtain them. 

In the 1950s and 60s, many animals became readily available on the open market and Dublin Zoo acquired rhinoceros, hippopotamus and giraffe, all of which bred.  Elephant rides, chimpanzee tea parties, lion feeding time, pets’ corner and pony rides were among some of the activities laid on for visitors.  The zoo became the place for birthday parties and First Communion celebrations, and in spring and early summer, school groups arrived by the busload. 

But the international zoo world was changing.  Zoo professionals, now meeting regularly to discuss major issues, were turning the focus from simple display of multiple species to conservation and education.  From the 1970s onwards, buying and selling animals gradually ceased.  Stud book keepers were appointed to manage a species across zoos, including breeding and establishing standards for animal care and husbandry.  Containment was no longer enough; animal habitats in zoos needed to support and promote the natural instincts and social groupings of animals, and promote general education.

By the 1980s, Dublin Zoo did not have the resources to keep up with the changes being implemented in major zoos around the world.  As visitor numbers dwindled and gate receipts went down, the zoo was on the point of closure in 1990.  It was saved by a groundswell of public support followed by government aid.  The infrastructure was overhauled and animal enclosures were improved.  In 1997, incoming president, Mary McAleese, granted the society use of the land and a lake formerly part of Áras an Uachtaráin.

In the early 2000s, the society received capital grants that allowed it to create world class animal habitats and improve visitor facilities.  The first ambitious habitat was the Kaziranga Forest Trail for the elephants, opened in 2007.  Drawing on local and international expertise, the complex habitat introduced protected contact for a family group of elephants, which was transferred from Rotterdam Zoo. The extensive use of plants created an immersive experience for visitors. Two elephants, pregnant on arrival, gave birth on deep sand without human interference.  A bull elephant arrived in 2012 and the herd continued to breed.  Dublin Zoo’s elephant husbandry and habitat have attracted interest from all over the world.

Since then several more world-class habitats have been created including the African Savanna, Family Farm, Gorilla Rainforest, Sea Lion Cove and Flamingo Lagoon, the Orangutan Forest and Zoorassic World.  Design inspiration is taken from the wild and animal wellness is a critical consideration.  In 2015, the Gorilla Rainforest was cited by the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums as a fine example of what can be achieved in a zoo.  The enthusiasm of visitors, many coming back to the zoo after a long break, saw annual visitor figures reach one million in 2011 and remain over the million mark ever since. 

Dublin Zoo is still operated as a charity by the Zoological Society of Ireland and is managed by a highly professional team.


Year Event
1833 The entrance lodge to the Zoo was built for £30! You can still see it today!
1838 To celebrate Queen Victoria's Coronation the Zoo held an open day - 20,000 people visited, which is still the highest number of visitors in one day.
1844 The Zoo received its first giraffe
1855 The Zoo bought its first pair of lions. These bred for the first time in 1857.
1868-9 An aquarium, a lion house and the Society House (which still stands) built with funds from a government grant.
1876 Reptiles shared the aquarium; it officially became the reptile house in the 1890s
1898 Haughton House opened, providing tea rooms for members upstairs and animal enclosures downstairs.
1916 Getting in and out of Phoenix Park became difficult during the Easter Rising and meat ran out. In order to keep the lions and tigers fed, some of the other animals in the zoo were killed!
1939-1945 During World War II the popularity of the Zoo soared despite the difficulty in replacing animals who died. The public donated food for the animals and, after the war when fuel was still difficult to acquire, trees were chopped down to heat the houses.
Today There are still parts of the zoo that date back to the very beginning - why not come along and see them for yourself!

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