From Swans To Science: Lincoln Park Zoo Looks Back At The Last 150 Years And What's Ahead

Bernie Tafoya
July 13, 2018 - 11:50 am

Chris Bijalba / Lincoln Park Zoo


CHICAGO (WBBM NEWSRADIO) -- Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo is celebrating its 150th birthday this year by looking back and looking ahead.

The zoo got its start in 1868 with a little help from New York.

According to the zoo's manager of animal records and programs, as well as the zoo's historian Adrienne Horrigan, "Central Park had some animals at the time…a group of swans. There was a man in Chicago whose brother worked for the park system in New York City and he knew about the swans in Central Park and thought it would be wonderful if we could have the same thing at Lincoln Park in Chicago."

In that year two pairs of swans were gifted to Lincoln Park from Central Park in New York. That marked the beginning of Chicago's free zoo.

Chicago Park District and Chicago History Museum

Two years later, Horrigan said the first animal house was built in 1870.

"That first building was actually up at what is now north of the zoo, on the north pond. And then, a few decades later, in the 1890s, the first large animal house was built on what we would consider the zoo grounds today," she said.

Over those next few beginning years, bison, foxes, elk, deer, wolves, eagles, a puma, peacocks, and two turtle doves were donated to the zoo. 

And although the zoo has grown in both size and animals since the start, one thing always remained the same - it's free. In 1878, Lincoln Park commissioners declared the zoo must always stay free, and it has been that way ever since.

"The great thing about Lincoln Park Zoo is that, we’re one of the oldest zoos in the country, but in a lot of ways we’re really one of the newest zoos in the country, because we’re constantly renovating our habitats," said Zoo Executive Vice President Dr. Megan Ross.

The newest habitat is the Walter Family Arctic Tundra that opened to the public in 2016 with polar bear, Siku. In 2018, the zoo introduced a female polar bear, Talini. The two polar bears now live, play, eat and frolic together in the new exhibit.  Dr. Ross said it's hoped that someday they'll have a baby polar bear. But, because polar bears have "delayed implantation," even though they mate in the spring, their bodies don't implant until the fall.

She also said habitats and environments are designed with the help of the animals. With the use of touch screen technology, the zoo can "survey" the animals to better fit their needs, such as asking chimpanzees and gorillas whether they prefer grapes or carrots and by how much.

For the celebration, the zoo has created an anniversary exhibition, From Swans to Science: 150 Years of Lincoln Park Zoo, illustrating the zoo's past, present, and future with 10 stops across zoo grounds. It will be available to view from May 20 to September 3, 2018. 

You can find out more interesting facts about Lincoln Park Zoo’s history and its future at as well as by listening to WBBM’s At Issue program this Sunday at 9:30 a.m. and 9:30 p.m.