A remarkable fact for you: Vienna’s Tiergarten Schönbrunn, which sits in the park surrounding Schönbrunn Palace, is the oldest working zoo in the world.
Mind you, one or two things have changed since it first opened in the 18th century (there’s more coke for sale, for starters).
- Founded in 1752 by Emperor Franz I
- First opened to the public in 1778
- Extensive modernisation programme since the 1990s
- See also: Zoo overview | Historical photos of Vienna
The zoo traces its official history back to Franz I, husband of Empress Maria Theresia, who established a private menagerie at Schönbrunn in 1752.
The amply-wigged Franz was a progressive thinker (for the times), known particularly for his interest in science and nature. For example, his natural history collections provided the foundation for Vienna’s Natural History Museum.
The Schönbrunn menagerie featured a circular design, radiating out from a central pavilion built in 1759. This layout can still be seen today in southeast part of the modern zoo, just behind the main entrance. As can the original baroque pavilion, which is now a restaurant:
Franz I’s menagerie wasn’t the first time the Schönbrunn grounds were used for animal husbandry. When Maximilian II first bought the property for the Habsburgs in the late 16th century, he converted the existing buildings into a hunting lodge.
By chance, it was also Maximilian who made a huge impression with one of Vienna’s first elephants. He included one in his procession as he entered the city for the first time as Holy Roman Emperor in 1563.
The royal menagerie at Schönbrunn got its first elephant over 200 years later, in 1770, beginning a long history with these animals that included one of the very first zoo-born elephant calves, and reaching its apex with the new elephant enclosure opened in 1996.
Franz I’s collection remained private until a few years after his death: Schönbrunn opened to the outside world toward the end of the 1770s, thus beginning the Tiergarten’s 250-year history as a public zoo.
In later years, the zoo survived three particularly challenging periods, beginning with the deprivations of WWI. Aerial bombing destroyed many of the enclosures and animals in WWII. And in the late 1980s, a growing awareness of animal welfare and modern zookeeping approaches led to growing criticism of the zoo’s infrastructure and waning public interest in visiting.
The turnaround began in the early 1990s with the appointment of Helmut Pechlaner as zoo director. It was largely his charisma and drive that led to a programme of investment and rebuilding that continues today under the able stewardship of Dagmar Schratter.
The zoo’s facilities and husbandry practices are now at the forefront of zoological practice and able to attract and support prestigious projects and exhibits like the Giant Pandas.
Evidence of the scale of this change comes from various zoo rankings. For example:
- In 2018, Tiergarten Schönbrunn ranked eighth in the world in the zoo category in the Trip Advisor Travelers’ Choice awards
- Also in 2018, expert Anthony Sheridan gave Tiergarten Schönbrunn the Best European Zoo Award for category A zoos (over 1 million visitors a year) for the fifth time in succession
Franz I would be proud…