History of The Denver Zoo

June 4, 2023

Welcome to Denver Zoo's captivating journey through time! In 2021, we proudly celebrate 125 years of operation. This remarkable milestone is a testament to the unwavering support and dedication of our cherished guests, members, City leaders, staff, and board of directors. Their contributions have been instrumental in shaping Denver Zoo into the world-class institution it is today. Join us as we delve into our rich history, watching videos that shed light on our evolution and reveal new aspects of our organization.

I AM DENVER: Denver Zoo - A 125-Year Legacy That Began With a Bear

The City of Denver's video storytelling project, "I Am Denver," featured Denver Zoo, showcasing our remarkable 125-year journey. From humble beginnings with just one bear, we have continuously innovated in habitat development and animal welfare, transforming from a mere entertainment attraction into an undisputed conservation leader. This inspiring piece encapsulates our dedication to wildlife preservation.

A Force of Nature: 125th Anniversary Gala

In September 2021, Denver Zoo hosted the unforgettable Force of Nature Gala. This magnificent event celebrated our vibrant history and honored the generous families who have supported us for generations. Their invaluable contributions have played a crucial role in constructing our most exciting habitats, enabling us to provide unparalleled experiences for both animals and visitors.

Denver Zoo Timeline: A Legacy Begins

It all started with a special gift to the mayor of Denver—an adorable black bear cub who found a home in City Park. This marked the beginning of Denver Zoo's illustrious journey, which would soon captivate the hearts of countless visitors.

Early Years

As Denver Zoo ventured into the early years, its growth and development began to unfold.

Guided by the First Master Plan

Denver Zoo flourished under the guidance of its first master plan. Embracing creativity and innovation, we sought unique ways to connect zoo guests with the diverse array of animals residing within our park. In 1975, we unveiled Bird World to great acclaim. Visitors could now feel the mist of the rainforest, witness cascading mountain waterfalls, and stroll along sandy shorelines in an open-air aviary teeming with dozens of captivating bird species.

Northern Shores: Wonders of Aquatic Life

In 1987, Denver Zoo brought the wonders of aquatic life to the heart of the city with the introduction of Northern Shores. This captivating exhibit offers visitors an underwater vantage point, allowing them to marvel at the graceful beauty of seals, sea lions, and polar bears. It was a landmark addition that enthralled visitors and brought the aquatic realm to Denver's doorstep.

Filling a Void: Tropical Discovery

In 1993, Denver Zoo addressed a conspicuous void in its collection by introducing Tropical Discovery—an immersive experience that transports visitors into the heart of steamy jungles and vibrant coral reefs. This awe-inspiring exhibit became home to hundreds of fish, amphibians, invertebrates, and reptiles, further enriching the diversity of our animal inhabitants.

The Middle Years

As Denver Zoo progressed into the middle years, new milestones were reached, and our commitment to education and conservation took center stage.

The Gates Wildlife Conservation Education Center

Thanks to a partnership between the Gates Family Foundation and the Colorado Division of Wildlife, Denver Zoo established the Gates Wildlife Conservation Education Center. This facility serves as a hub for our on-grounds and outreach education programs, catering to individuals of all ages. Our dedicated staff and passionate volunteers strive to inspire a love for wildlife and contribute to our mission of conservation. The Gates Center is also home to Denver Zoo's esteemed Conservation Biology Department, overseeing critical projects worldwide since its inception in 1996.

A Plan for the Future

Denver Zoo embarked on a visionary path, formulating a new master plan to guide its growth and development into the new millennium. Building upon the momentum of the 1959 Master Plan, the Millennium Master Plan set the stage for transformative projects that would solidify Denver Zoo's position as a global leader in exhibit design and visitor experience.

Primate Panorama: Expanding Horizons

In 1996 and 2002, Denver Zoo unveiled two phases of Primate Panorama, a captivating exhibit showcasing the diversity and magnificence of primates. This expansion provided a captivating habitat for these intelligent creatures, allowing visitors to witness their natural behaviors and fostering a deeper understanding of their importance in the animal kingdom.

Award-Winning Predator Ridge

In 2004, Denver Zoo introduced the award-winning Predator Ridge, a revolutionary exhibit that captivated visitors with its unique rotational exhibit concept. This concept, inspired by the natural habitat patterns of animals, allows different species to inhabit the exhibit at different times, creating an ever-changing and stimulating environment. This innovative approach has been emulated in zoos worldwide, reflecting Denver Zoo's commitment to pioneering exhibit design.

Toyota Elephant Passage: A Triumph of Conservation

In 2012, Denver Zoo unveiled the extraordinary Toyota Elephant Passage—a groundbreaking exhibit that offers elephants and other species an unparalleled environment. Inspired by the rotational exhibit concept, Toyota Elephant Passage provides animals with a multitude of habitats to explore, stimulating their minds, expanding their experiences, and offering essential opportunities for exercise. This exhibit represents Denver Zoo's dedication to conservation and the well-being of its animal residents.

Denver Zoo's Vision of Excellence

As we look to the future, Denver Zoo remains steadfast in its pursuit of excellence. We are currently in the process of developing an updated master plan, which will further enhance our ability to care for our animals and provide unforgettable experiences for our visitors. With each visit, we strive to inspire our guests to forge connections with animals and become advocates for wildlife preservation. Keep an eye out for exciting details about this forthcoming guide, which will shape the future of Denver Zoo.


Denver Zoo's 125-year journey has been one of remarkable growth, transformation, and unwavering dedication to conservation. From our humble beginnings with a bear cub in City Park to becoming a world-class institution, we owe our success to the unwavering support of our guests, members, City leaders, staff, and board of directors. Together, we have forged a legacy of excellence, creativity, and a commitment to protecting wildlife for future generations. Join us on this incredible journey, and discover the wonders that Denver Zoo has to offer.

FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions)

1. How long has Denver Zoo been in operation?

Denver Zoo has been in operation for 125 years, celebrating its remarkable anniversary in 2021.

2. What was the significance of the 125th Anniversary Gala?

The 125th Anniversary Gala held in September 2021 commemorated Denver Zoo's colorful history and honored the families who have generously supported the zoo for generations.

3. What are some notable exhibits introduced by Denver Zoo?

Denver Zoo introduced captivating exhibits such as Bird World, Northern Shores, Tropical Discovery, Primate Panorama, Predator Ridge, and Toyota Elephant Passage.

4. How does Denver Zoo contribute to education and conservation? Denver Zoo is committed to education and conservation efforts through the establishment of the Gates Wildlife Conservation Education Center, which offers on-grounds and outreach programs. The zoo's Conservation Biology Department oversees critical projects worldwide.

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