The Royal Zoological Society of Scotland was founded in 1909, by an Edinburgh lawyer Thomas Gillespie. A visionary and enthusiast, in only four years he garnered sufficient support and funding to enable the Society to buy an 85 acre site to the west of Edinburgh, for £17,000 with help from the City of Edinburgh Council.
Edinburgh Zoo was opened to the public on 22 July 1913, and was incorporated by Royal Charter later that year. However, it was only in 1948, following a visit by HRH King George VI, that 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.
In its original charter, the Society had the principle objective 'To promote, facilitate and encourage the study of zoology and kindred subjects and to foster and develop amongst the people an interest in and knowledge of animal life.' Education has always been at the core of the Zoo's activities, and we are proud of our international reputation for excellence in this field.
In terms of the animal enclosures, Gillespie was inspired by the so-called 'open zoo' at Hamburg, designed by Carl Hagenbeck. This took a completely different approach from the Victorian menageries with bars and cages. Instead, Edinburgh Zoo was designed to have large, open enclosures, using ditches and moats to separate the animals from the visitors. The early footprint of the southern aspect of the site was designed by the social visionary and town planner, Patrick Geddes, along with his son-in-law Frank Mears. The Zoo has remained at the forefront of zoo enclosure design, and we regularly win awards for the natural and stimulating habitats for the animals.
100 Years of Edinburgh Zoo
View the 100 year history of Edinburgh Zoo complete with pictures on the Central Library’s Our Town Stories website.
Wojtek The Soldier Bear
Edinburgh Zoo has had several famous animal inhabitants over the years, but only one of them can claim to have helped win World War II. Wojtek, also known as the Soldier Bear, was a Syrian brown bear that lived a particularly extraordinary life before retiring to Edinburgh Zoo for the rest of his days.
Wojtek was adopted as a cub by the 22nd Company Polish Army Service and Corps (Artillery) troops in 1943, after an Iranian boy swapped the bear for cans of food. He quickly became a firm favourite of the troops and in 1944 was enlisted as an honorary soldier and mascot for the soldiers, complete with name, rank and number.
This photograph was provided by The Polish Institute and Sikorski Museum - London.
Wojtek didn’t stop at being a mascot. When the Company was assigned to help supply food and ammunition to the Allied Forces in the battle of Monte Cassino, the Soldier Bear wasn’t left behind. He travelled to the battle with the troops and, without prompting, helped to carry boxes of 25lb artillery shells for his comrades under heavy gunfire without dropping a single one.
After the war ended, the 22nd Company was billeted in Winfield Camp, near Hutton in Berwickshire. Wojtek was one of around three thousand troops in the camp and became a very popular figure with locals in the Borders.
We are probably best known throughout the world for our penguins. The association with these amazing birds began in January 1913, with the arrival of three king penguins from the Christian Salvesen whaling expedition which docked in Leith. We subsequently had the first successful hatching of a king penguin chick in 1919. These were the first penguins ever to be seen anywhere outside of the South Atlantic, and Edinburgh Zoo has pioneered the care and science of penguins ever since. The king penguin is even featured on our logo!
Sir Nils Olav is our most famous penguin of all as not only is he mascot to the Royal Norwegian Guard, he has also received the proud honour of being knighted under the instruction of the King Of Norway, King Harald V in 2008. You can find out more about this fine upstanding fellow on our Sir Nils Olav page or by visiting us here at Edinburgh Zoo.
Over the years, the Zoo has continued to develop in line with our growing understanding of animal welfare, both physical and psychological. New enclosures are designed regularly to enrich the animals' lives and provide exciting and inspirational experiences for our visitors.
Our mission is 'to connect people with nature and safeguard species from extinction.'