On May 1, the Bronx Zoo’s African Plains Exhibit celebrated a historical milestone – it has been transporting guests to the wild savannahs of Africa for 75 years. The exhibit may be one of the zoo’s oldest, but it remains a significant milestone in the zoo’s history.
When the African Plains exhibit opened in 1941, Bronx Zoo visitors had yet to experience such a unique encounter with wildlife. The exhibit represented the first time that the animals on display were not related by their taxonomy, but rather by where they could be found in their home ecosystems. The habitats for the animals were also realistic and attempted to evoke the surroundings the animals would experience in the wilds of Africa.
African Plains was not only innovative, but the innovation was incredibly well-received: the weekend following the grand opening of the exhibit, the Bronx Zoo saw record crowds of 85,000 people in a single day: a record for the zoo. Below, see a video of CBS reporters documenting the opening of the exhibit from inside a crate in the lion habitat.
The African Plains experience was the brainchild of Fairchild Osborn, then the president of the New York Conservation Society (now known as WCS). The exhibit was not only able to showcase animals from a similar geographic region, but also the predator-prey relationships. From a single vantage point, guests could see both the lion and hoofstock exhibits, separated by hidden moats.
Today, the African Plains exhibit is home to lions, spotted hyenas, African wild dogs, giraffes, zebras, gazelles, antelopes, and several more African species. The design and success of the African Plains exhibit inspired the zoo to continue with the trend of showcasing ecosystems rather than taxonomic groups in its exhibits.
The story and popularity of Bronx Zoo’s African Plains Exhibit is representative of many zoos across the country. Zoos and aquariums have never stopped evolving; exhibits at most facilities now follow this model of displaying animals from a region of the world in habitats that immerse guests in exciting and exotic destinations. The record attendance seen by the Bronx Zoo back in 1941 is indicative of the fact that people want to see and connect with animals, and zoos are able transport people to these destinations that many couldn’t otherwise afford to visit.