The Oregon Zoo: it all began with a "she-grizzly." A native of England, Richard Knight had moved to Portland in 1882 and set up shop as a pharmacist near the docks along the Willamette River. Knight's pharmacy gained a reputation as a place where sailors could relieve themselves of animals they'd acquired on their travels. Parakeets, monkeys and other small animals formed a menagerie of orphans in the back of Knight's pharmacy. Two bears – one a grizzly – were staked in a vacant lot next door.

By 1888, the care of a business, four young children, and perhaps an increasingly exasperated wife prompted Knight to write to the mayor of Portland:

"I have ... for sale two bears, one young male brown, and a she grizzly, which latter is said to be with cub. They are gentle, easily cared for, and cost but a trifle to keep, and knowing they would prove a great source of attraction to the city park, would like an offer for them before sending elsewhere."

Perhaps doubting some of those assertions, the city countered with an offer of two circus cages, which Knight would be allowed to place on the grounds of City Park (now Washington Park). He did that, setting them not far from the park entrance at today's NW 24th Place and West Burnside Street. Care and feeding of the bears, however, remained with the Knight family and friends.

It wasn't long before Knight came back to mayor, this time with a slightly enhanced offer: an outright gift of the grizzly (the fate of the other bear is unknown). Portland City Council accepted the offer on November 7, 1888. The Portland Zoo – now the Oregon Zoo – was born.

From one "she grizzly" to a world-class center for wildlife preservation and field research, the zoo's 124-year journey has seen vast leaps in zoological knowledge and animal enrichment, and an increasing focus on sustainable operations, wildlife education and conservation. The zoo is proud of how far it has come:

  • 1.6 million people visit each year.
  • 700,000 people, from preschoolers to retirees, learn about the behavior and needs of wildlife through a host of educational programs.
  • Animal enrichment and naturalistic settings are a top priority.
  • Low-impact facilities and systems are replacing resource-intensive operations.
  • Keepers, veterinarians and researchers contribute to the global body of knowledge on animal care and wildlife conservation.
  • 1,500 zoo volunteers annually give 117,000 hours of service.

Zoo Timeline

Portland pharmacist Richard Knight collects animals from seafaring friends.

The Portland Zoo is born, from Knight's menagerie. Charles Myers becomes the first zookeeper.

The number of animals grows to 300, mostly from North America.

The zoo begins a period of decline that continues until after World War II.

Richard Knight dies.

The zoo moves from the hillside above West Burnside Street to a more remote, higher part of Washington Park (the Portland Japanese Garden now occupies some of that site).

Portland City Club recommends a new zoo. Portland City Council places a $3.85 million bond measure on the ballot to finance construction of a new zoo facility on a 40-acre site, part of the West Hills Golf Course in Washington Park.

The zoo receives its first Asian elephant, Rosy, courtesy of Mr. and Mrs. Austin Fleg, Portlanders living in Thailand.

The ballot measure to finance construction of the new zoo passes.

The newly named Portland Zoological Gardens open. Only 60 percent of the original plan is complete due to construction costs and weather delays. The zoo railway, included in the original bond measure, is completed with donations of time, money and materials.

Following penguin expeditions led by director Jack Marks, the first penguin exhibit opens.

Packy is born, the first elephant born in the United States in 44 years. Annual attendance exceeds one million.

The Children's Zoo opens with domesticated animals, boat rides, a merry-go-round, and the "Mole Hole," an underground tunnel with burrowing animals on exhibit.

Naturalistic exhibits are not yet a concept. "Modern" zoos mean bold colors and asymmetric structures.

Portland Zoological Society assumes zoo management, with funding continuing from the City of Portland.

The zoo's volunteer program begins.

The Oregon legislature places the zoo under the jurisdiction of the Metropolitan Service District (now Metro), the Portland area regional government. Voters approve a five-year, $10 million levy for operating and capital expenses. The zoo is renamed the Washington Park Zoo.

Voters approve a three-year $15 million serial levy. A remodel provides larger outdoor areas for Asian elephants and state-of-the-art handling facilities. The primate house is remodeled. The first Humboldt penguin egg hatches at the zoo.

Cascade Stream and Pond exhibit opens, constructed with private funds. It wins the top exhibit award from the American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums.

A completely remodeled Penguinarium opens.

Alaska Tundra, another major exhibit, opens (now the site of Predators of the Serengeti).

The west bear grottos are renovated and the Polar Bears and Sun Bears exhibits open. The Lilah Callen Holden Elephant Museum opens, constructed with private funds.

Africa Aviary and AfriCafe open along with a terraced concert lawn. The first ZooLights is held, thanks to volunteer efforts from making displays to staffing the event. Annual attendance exceeds one million for the second time in zoo history.

Africa exhibit opens.

Voters approve a $5.1 million permanent tax base for zoo operating support. The zoo begins to develop a long-range plan.

Africa Rainforest opens. Annual attendance reaches 1.16 million.

Elk Meadow exhibit opens. The zoo hosts the first conference on environmental enrichment for zoo animals.

Center for Species Survival opens.

Voters approve a bond measure to construct the Great Northwest exhibit and a new entry village.

The zoo is renamed the Oregon Zoo to better reflect its location and emphasis on native wildlife. A new entrance and the first phase of the Great Northwest exhibit, Cascade Crest, opens to the public.

Lorikeet Landing and Amur Leopard exhibits open.

Steller Cove, a marine life habitat exhibit, opens.

Amazon Flooded Forest exhibit opens. The zoo becomes a member of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service California Condor Recovery Program.

The zoo launches Future for Wildlife. This conservation program begins breeding endangered Washington pygmy rabbits, western pond turtles, and Oregon silverspot butterflies for eventual reintroduction into the wild.

Condors arrive to a breeding facility in rural Clackamas County.

Eagle Canyon exhibit opens. Trillium Creek Family Farm opens, the first U.S. zoo exhibit run exclusively by teenage volunteers.

The Oregon Zoo's first-born condor chick is released into the wild at Pinnacles National Monument in California.

Cougar Crossing exhibit opens.

Zoo visitors pay an admission surcharge to support conservation programs in the Northwest. Black Bear Ridge exhibit opens, completing the Great Northwest section. Washington pygmy rabbits from the zoo's breeding program are released into the wild for the first time.

Voters across the Portland metropolitan region approve a $125 million bond measure for zoo improvements. The zoo begins development of a master plan, six new animal exhibits, a conservation education center and a veterinary medical center.

Predators of the Serengeti opens, bringing lions, cheetahs, wild dogs and other African predators to the zoo.

Red Ape Reserve opens, offering unprecedented views of orangutans and white-cheeked gibbons together in an indoor-outdoor enclosure.

Metro Council approves the zoo's 20-year master plan.

The Veterinary Medical Center opens, marking the first large project funded in large part by the 2008 bond measure. Asian elephant Packy turns 50 on April 14.