Edinburgh Zoo!

Edinburgh Zoo

On Wednesday 22nd July Edinburgh Zoo celebrated the 102nd anniversary of the day it first opened to the public. Going from strength to strength through the years the zoo has become Scotland’s second largest paid for tourist attraction, only being beaten by Edinburgh castle, and attracting over 600,000 visitors every year. This week we will be taking a look at this marvellous attractions history and a few of the things that make it so special….

Edinburgh Zoo

The Beginning…

Before there was the zoo there was a charity that was behind the endeavour, the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, founded in 1909 by Edinburgh lawyer, Thomas Hailing Gillespie and others. The Society’s first president was lawyer and politician Edward Theodore Salvesen, son of the Norwegian merchant Christian Salveson—a connection which would prove significant in later years.

Gillespie set out to build a zoological park and was inspired by the open design of Tierpark Hagenbeck in Hamburg and the New York Zoological Park. The design promoted a more spacious and natural environment for the animals, and stood in stark contrast to the steel cages typical of the menageries built during the Victorian era. All that was needed was a suitable site for the park and Gillespie hoped for a site that could shelter the park and therefore the animals from the cold north and east winds and luckily just such an area was available.

The society secured an option to purchase the 75-acre (30 ha) Corstorphine Hill House estate for £17,000. Unfortunately the society had a fair amount of trouble raising the necessary funds for the purchase and the option to buy was nearing expiry. An unlikely hero came to the rescue in the form of Edinburgh City Council, who purchased the site outright in February 1913. The zoological society was granted full use of the estate in return for a 4 percent annual repayment of the cost. This also meant the funds the society had raised could be put to good use building and stocking the park.

Town planner Patrick Geddes came on board to design the park following Gillespie’s vision of an open design. The Scottish National Zoological Park, as it was initially called, opened to the public with a large collection of gifted and borrowed animals on 22 July 1913, after only 15 weeks of work. The zoo still occupies very much the same area of land today, though the park has, and still is, being extensively redeveloped.

Early History

The Scottish National Zoological Park was opened to the public in 1913 and was incorporated by Royal Charter later that year. In 1948, following a visit by His Majesty King George VI, the Society was granted the privilege of adding the prefix ‘Royal’ to its name. It remains the only zoo with a Royal Charter in the United Kingdom.


Edinburgh Zoo’s long association with penguins began in January 1914, thanks to the zoological society’s connection with the Salvesen family, with the arrival of three king penguins from the Christian Salvesen whaling expedition which docked in Leith. These where the first penguins in the world to be seen outside of the south Atlantic, and the subsequent hatching of a king penguin chick in 1919 was the first penguin ever to be hatched in captivity. Penguins continued to arrive with whaling ships for years afterwards and even today penguins are closely associated with the zoo, as you can see by their logo.

penguin enclosure

In 1925 a tropical bird and reptile house was added, followed in 1927 by an aquarium and in 1929 an ape house. In 1930, the now famous, penguin pool was constructed, though it has since been rebuilt, in 1990, to include a new under water viewing area. In 1928 the Corstorphine Golf Club evacuated the 47 acres to the north of the estate, allowing the zoo to expand significantly and this new area was completed in 1937.

Hagenbeck’s modern zoo techniques proved effective, and Edinburgh quickly gained a reputation for its good animal conditions. 1934 saw the births in captivity of a sea lion and beaver, and in 1936 a baby chimpanzee followed. A litter of wolves was born in 1938, and soon afterwards the first orangutan to be born in Britain.

The War Years…

Edinburgh Zoo, like most of the Zoos in the UK during the war, was significantly affected even though they would not normally be considered a target. Bombs could fall at any time and the zoos housed animals that would be dangerous to the public if they should escape due to a damaged enclosure. Edinburgh Zoo was bombed twice during the Second World War, but remained mostly unharmed although it was reported that one of the bombs killed a giraffe. In 1941 the recently born wolves had to be euthanized, along with a collection of dangerous snakes in case more bombs hit the zoo and allowed them to escape.

Despite the war the zoo continued to grow, with land to the east being purchased in 1942 and construction of a lake beginning soon afterwards.

Following the War…

It was around 1950 that one of Edinburgh Zoos most famous traditions began, the penguin parade and it was all started by a mistake. One of the zookeepers who had been working in the penguin enclosure had left the gate open on their way out. The penguins followed the zookeeper out of the enclosure and around the park much to the delight of visitors, and from then on it became a regular occurrence up to today, when it occurs every afternoon. The birds have even paraded along Princes Street in 1955 and at the Royal Highland Show for the Queen in 1960. It’s interesting to note that the penguin parade is run on an entirely voluntary basis. The penguins are not encouraged to take part with food or other tricks.

Penguin Parade

One of the zoo’s famous inhabitants during the post-war period was Voytek, a Syrian brown bear and a member of the Polish army. During the Second World War, Voytek was sold to a group of Polish soldiers who taught him to carry crates of ammunition, and took him in as an unofficial mascot. In 1944 when the Polish II Corps where to sail to Italy along with the British 8th Army, Voytek had to be officially drafted into the Polish army in order to secure him passage on a British transport ship.

Voytek the Bear

Wojtek the Bear Wojtek the Bear

The II Corps were demobilised in 1946 and ended up settling in Winfield Camp near Hutton, Berwickshire, Scotland. Voytek retired to Edinburgh Zoo in 1947 and lived there until his death in 1963. During his time in the army Voytek had developed a liking for cigarettes, and this may have contributed to his popularity as an attraction at the zoo.

In 1972 the zoo gained yet more military credentials when king penguin Nils Olav was adopted by the Norwegian King’s Guard. Norway’s connection with Edinburgh’s penguins began with the Salvesen family’s links to the zoo, and renewed interest was sparked when a lieutenant called Nils Egelien visited the zoo with the King’s Guard in 1961. On his return in 1972 Egelien arranged for the unit to adopt one of the penguins. Nils Olav was named after Egelien and in honour of King Olav V of Norway, and given the rank of lance corporal. He died in 1987 and his successor, Nils Olav II, inherited his rank. Nils was visited by the Norwegian King’s Guard on 15 August 2008 and awarded a knighthood. The honour was approved by the King of Norway, King Harald V. During the ceremony a crowd of several hundred people joined the 130 guardsmen at the zoo to hear a citation from King Harald the Fifth of Norway read out, which described Nils as a penguin “in every way qualified to receive the honour and dignity of knighthood”.

Nils Olav

Three-year-old polar bear Mercedes was given to the zoo in 1984, after she was rescued in Churchill, Manitoba, Canada. She had begun wandering into the town in search of food. Because of the danger she posed to residents, Mercedes was tagged with a number so she could be tracked. When she could not be persuaded to return to the wild, a decision was taken to shoot her. A member of the Edinburgh Zoological Society collaborated with a cousin in Canada and they were able to rescue Mercedes, finding her a new home at Edinburgh zoo. The bear would become one of the zoo’s most popular attractions.

The Modern Day…

In October 1999 the zoo had begun to explore the possibility of relocating in order to improve its facilities as there was limited room for expansion in the current site. As of February 2000 the zoo had scrapped its plans to relocate, instead announcing a “masterplan” for the redevelopment of the entire site, which continues to today.

The foot-and-mouth scare of 2001 forced the zoo to close to protect the animals from possible infection. Since the zoo could not welcome any visitors, it faced significant financial losses. Questions were posed about the zoo’s future, though in the end the park was able to reopen after only five weeks. The generosity of a former resident of the city was a huge help to the zoo in this difficult time, as in early April they donated £1.9 million just as the zoo reopened.

In 2005 the new Budongo chimp house was unveiled, along with the Living Links to Human Evolution Centre, Britain’s first primate behaviour research site. Named after the Budongo Forest in Uganda, the Budongo Trail is a state-of-the-art facility that houses a troop of common chimpanzees. The main building features viewing galleries, a lecture theatre and interactive games and displays that are designed to teach the public about chimpanzees and their lifestyle, social structure and what threats they face in the wild. The Living Links centre is an area built around a field station and research centre for the study of primate behaviour. The exhibit also features enclosures housing common squirrel monkeys and brown capuchin monkey. In a scientific breakthrough in 2006 chimpanzees at Edinburgh were found to use word-like vocal labels for food.

Budongo Centre

In 2011, two giant pandas, a male named Yáng Guāng (陽光, meaning “sunshine”) and a female named Tián Tián (甜甜, meaning “sweetie”), were leased by Edinburgh Zoo from the Bifengxia Breeding Centre in China at a cost of $1m a year. An enclosure was constructed especially for the pandas. Both pandas have identical, but separate indoor and outdoor enclosures as giant pandas are entirely solitary animals that only meet during breeding season once a year. The outdoor enclosures feature tree trunks for the pandas to scratch against and climb; large wooden climbing frames and tree houses; caves and ponds. The indoor enclosures, where they often choose to sleep, include raised wooden platforms and hammocks. They will remain at the zoo for a maximum of ten years before being returned to China. Edinburgh Zoo is currently the only zoo in the United Kingdom that houses giant pandas.


Edinburgh Zoo is home to the only four koalas in the UK, Goonaroo, Yabbra, Alinga and the newest arrival, Yoonarah, who was the first koala born in the UK. The koalas are part of the European Breeding Programme. Edinburgh Zoo is the European ‘holding facility’ for male koalas that are either too young to breed or have successfully bred and are now “retired”.


Edinburgh Zoo has recently opened two very unique exhibits, the Wallaby Outback and the Lemur Walkthrough. Both are a new design which allows visitors to enter and follow a trail around the enclosure, getting closer to these species than ever before. Visitors enter via a double-gated entry system and can take a leisurely stroll on a looped pathway and although visitors will not have direct physical contact, the new walkthrough experiences immerse people in the enclosure, offering them an unrestricted view of the animals.

Lemur Walkthrough

Edinburgh Zoo is now fully interactive on the internet with several live cam feeds, take a look at them below:

Panda Cam

Penguin Cam

Underwater Penguin Cam

Squirrel Monkey Cam



Related Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *