History of the Minnesota Zoo

More than 40 years ago, a vision was born for a zoo like no other—a place where guests can view exotic animals from around the world in natural habitats and a garden-like setting. After years of dreaming, discussion, planning, and construction, the Minnesota Zoological Garden, or Minnesota Zoo, opened on May 22, 1978. Called the “New Zoo” back then, it featured 1,200 animals representing 238 species. Fast forward to today, and you’ll experience a zoo that has doubled its animal collection, is the largest environmental education center in the state, and has become a worldwide leader in conservation.

A Radical Concept
In the 1960s, local conservationists began lobbying for an expansive zoo facility that would not only feature species native to Minnesota but also animals in naturalistic settings and outdoor exhibits. When Dakota County donated the Apple Valley parcel to the state in 1970, Zoo organizers had the space they needed to build the large exhibits they envisioned, including a monorail as a means of transporting visitors to the far reaches, affording them a bird’s-eye-view of the expansive outdoor exhibits. Compared with the layouts and exhibits of most North American zoos, this was a radical concept offering a very unique visitor experience—open exhibits, naturalistic settings, and glass partitions or other security barriers replacing the traditional steel bars. The Minnesota Zoo’s cutting-edge design transformed the zoo experience and many zoos have followed suit.

Making a Difference
Since the beginning, conservation has been a core value of the Minnesota Zoo. Its focus has always been on animals that are considered threatened or endangered based on the premise that zoos have a responsibility to educate, maintain, and provide information and research on rare species.

  • The Minnesota Zoo is a leader in tiger conservation and is known internationally for its efforts in both in situ and ex situ tiger conservation programs in Southeast Asia.
  • The Zoo’s partnership with Ujung Kulon Kambas National Park in Sumatra, Indonesia was the first Adopt-a-Park of its kind and has spurred other zoos to form similar partnerships.
  • The Zoo works locally, nationally and internationally on recovery and reintroduction projects: trumpeter swan restoration in Midwest, Asian Wild Horse recovery in Mongolia, Bluebird recovery in Minnesota.

Managing Captive Populations
Taking the lead in conservation means the Minnesota Zoo not only supports the preservation of animals in their natural habitats, it also carefully manages the birds, beasts, and fish within its own collection. Modern zoos are in some cases the last line of defense for species that are threatened or have already vanished from the earth.

The Minnesota Zoo participates in more than 60 Species Survival Plans (SSP) of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), an ongoing effort to manage and breed zoo animals that may face extinction in the wild. The Zoo also has a long history and strong partnership with two internationally known conservation programs—the International Species Information System, a program that provides animal records keeping software and database services to zoos around the world, and the Conservation Breeding Specialist Group, a branch of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

Changing How You See the World
From the beginning, the Minnesota Zoo has changed people’s perceptions of what a zoo can be. More than 36 million guests have walked through the gates into a world of exotic and rare animals, award winning exhibits, nationally recognized education programs, and leading conservation efforts. The Minnesota Zoo will continue to provide unique exhibits of animals with enriched lives while offering guests closer and more engaging encounters with nature. It will continue its mission—to connect people, animals, and the natural world.

1960s - 1970s