Elmwood Park Zoo was founded in 1924, when a private landowner donated a small piece of property and a handful of white-tailed deer to the Borough of Norristown. Run by the Borough as a division of Elmwood Park, the zoo exhibited a collection of animals throughout the 1920s, including monkeys, bears, peacocks, deer, raccoons, and rabbits. Popular for its exhibits, the zoo was also a destination because of the natural spring that provided clean water to borough residents.
The zoo expanded and changed over the decades. Advances in animal care changed exhibits from bare wire-cages (which was the standard in the 1920s) into more naturalistic exhibits that would give comfort to the animals. The zoo developed a focus on North- and South-American animals, and though ownership and operation continued to come from the Borough, the zoo was supported by the Norristown Zoological Society, a group of community-minded citizens who oversaw programs, and donated their time and money to support the zoo.
In 1977, the Norristown Zoological Society became an official non-profit organization, and assumed control of Elmwood Park Zoo from the Borough of Norristown. Two years later, the first long-term master plan for the physical development and expansion of the zoo developed by the NZS was approved by the Norristown Borough Council. Completed in 2002, this plan saw the zoo expand in size from eight to sixteen acres, and new animal exhibits including the Andrew L. Lewis Wetlands Aviary in 1995. In 1996, the “Sensorium” indoor facility was renovated into The Bayou, an exhibit featuring American reptiles and amphibians like alligators, turtles, frogs, lizards, and snakes. In 1997, a brand new multi-million dollar entrance pavilion and parking complex were opened to the public, and in August of that year Phase I of the Grassland Exhibit, featuring American Bison and Roosevelt Elk, made its debut.
The Powell Pavilion, featuring administrative offices, the zoo’s admission area, Cafe, and Lenore Weiss Nature Shop, was completed in 1999, and in 2001 the Thomas Kimmel Conservation Kingdom, a state-of-the-art interactive playground, opened and immediately became one of the Zoo’s most popular attractions. 2002 saw the opening of Phase II of the Grasslands Exhibit, exhibiting prairie dogs and the black-footed ferret, one of the rarest and most endangered animals in the world. With the completion of that exhibit, the original master plan from 1987 was officially labeled a success. Also in 2002 the Oberkircher Discovery Center was constructed, to house the zoo’s educational programs and offices.
Today, Elmwood Park Zoo welcomes over 500,000 visitors annually for an educational adventure in a fun, clean, and family-oriented environment. Though constantly expanding and improving, the zoo retains much of its history. The old Spring House has become an administrative office, and the original zoo office, constructed in 1924, still stands toward the rear of the zoo.
The zoo moves ever forward guided by its mission to foster an appreciation for wildlife and the environment that will inspire active participation in conservation. The Norristown Zoological Society operates the zoo; the Board of Directors, composed of business and community leaders, is committed to making Elmwood Park Zoo one of the finest zoos in the world.