In 1900, George and Ann Perkins, heirs of the city’s founder, Simon Perkins, donated what is now Perkins Woods Park to the City of Akron. They stipulated that the 79 acres be used for “...the sole purpose of devoting the same to the uses of a public park, especially as a place for recreation for children.” Two brown bears were donated and a facility appropriate for the era was built in the park.
In 1950, a small museum of Natural History was also incorporated. In 1953, the founding fathers expanded the museum to include the 24-acre Akron Children’s Zoo, a menagerie of Mother Goose themes. The zoo flourished during the 50’s and 60’s.
The first big exhibit at the zoo was Monkey Island, built in 1960 at a cost of $14,000. The barn and windmill were added in 1961. By 1964, a feeding ring and otter exhibit were added, and directional signs were placed around the city. Moto, a miniature Mediterranean donkey, was purchased in 1965. At this point, the admission price was raised to 25 cents.
The 70s saw many capital improvements for the zoo, as well as a large number of animal acquisitions. The Paul Belcher Aviary was constructed in 1978, and its revolutionary design was copied at several zoos nationwide.
In 1979, the zoo changed its name to the Akron Zoological Park to reflect the zoo’s changing attitudes. In addition, the City of Akron turned over governance of the zoo to the Board of Trustees. The zoo became a non-profit organization, owning all of the zoo’s contents, with the City of Akron as landlord. The theme of North and South American Animals was adopted giving the zoo a stable base for our education and conservation goals. For many years, all exhibits and educational materials centered around this theme. Several exhibits were renovated, and jaguar and eagle exhibits were opened. Zoo publicity, through educational outreach and on-site programs, continued to increase.
In 1985, the zoo received a grant from the Institute of Museum Services that allowed for the creation of a full graphic system to identify our animal collection. In 1986, a second grant was received from this organization that purchased the zoo’s computer system. In 1988, the current otter exhibit was opened showing a habitat approach to exhibit design at a cost of $115,000. This exhibit was made possible by the donation of one individual.
The 1980s were characterized by the modernization of the zoo’s exhibits and management philosophies to build a solid financial foundation and philosophical foundation with nearly $500,000 in capital improvements to the zoo between 1985 and 1988. Special events such as Holiday Lights and Boo at the Zoo bolstered the zoo’s annual attendance with 1988 drawing 133,000 guests breaking the 1957 attendance record of 128,344 visitors. As the decade closed, the Akron Zoological Park was accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, recognizing the Akron Zoo’s professional stature among accredited zoos and aquariums nationwide. With the acquisitions of black- and white-ruffed lemurs, Bennett’s wallabies, red pandas, Galapagos tortoises, and a pair of snowy owls, the Akron Zoological Park moved from primarily a North and South American zoo to one that exhibits animals from all over the world. Also, the lemurs and red pandas began the zoo’s involvement in the Species Survival Program (SSP). The addition of the modern animal care facility in 1995 marked another milestone in the history of the Akron Zoological Park.
Tiger Valley and Asian Trail were added in 1998 and 1999, respectively, with Gator Gorge added in 2000. This was, at the time, the largest capital expansion in zoo history. These exhibits really displayed the direction of the Akron Zoo - to be an institution focused on conservation, education, and the protection of endangered species. Most of the animals in these areas are part of Species Survival Plans with the American Zoo and Aquarium Association – Sumatran tigers, African lions, Malayan sun bears, red pandas, Chinese alligators, and white-naped cranes. As the zoo world continues to evolve and have a greater impact on conservation and education, so does the Akron Zoo.
In 2000, the Akron Zoo started the next chapter in its history. On March 7, 2000, the zoo passed a county-wide property tax levy. The 0.8 mil levy provides approximately $8.1 million a year to the zoo for seven years. This money is being used to plan, build, and operate a variety of capital improvements.
On Jan. 2, 2001, the Akron Zoo opened year round for the first time in its 47-year history. Phase one of the parking lot expansion was completed in the summer of 2001. In 2002, the Akron Zoo opened Wild Prairie, a themed exhibit housing black-footed ferrets, thick-billed parrots, black-tailed prairie dogs, and burrowing owls. This area also features a new concession stand and larger picnic area. The Sherman Center Clinic expansion and a new holding building for the education animals were also completed in 2002.
In 2003, the zoo opened the Barnhardt Family Welcome Center with an expanded gift shop and guest services; the Lehner Family Zoo Gardens, featuring an acre of beautiful flowers and plants native to Ohio; and Penguin Point, a new and improved home for our Humboldt penguins. 2003 was the zoo’s 50th anniversary and the biggest year for the zoo ever. Attendance was up 40% from 2002 and broke a record with 150,000 visitors.
In May, 2005 the zoo opened their largest expansion in their history, Legends of the Wild. This area features 16 animal exhibits, over 20 animal species and over 400 total animals, including snow leopards, jaguars, lemurs, bats and many more.
On October 1, 2005, the zoo unveiled Komodo Kingdom Education Center, featuring Komodo dragons, Galapagos tortoises and Chinese alligators. Certification by Leaders in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) was awarded, making Komodo Kingdom the 1st LEED certified building in Summit County. The zoo utilized current green technology for heating and cooling and the building was built using many earth-friendly materials. Komodo Kingdom also includes an indoor/outdoor cafe for the hungriest of visitors. Also in the Education Center is an exhibit hall that features temporary exhibits.
In 2006 the zoo’s tax levy was up for renewal and the zoo set out to let the community know what an extraordinary and conservation minded zoo they had built with their tax dollars. The community once again supported their zoo with the passage of the property tax in the Fall.
In 2008 the zoo embarked on their first ever salt-water exhibit with the opening of Jellies: Rhythm in the Blue. This aquarium was built in Komodo Kingdom and included 10 aquariums with seven different species of jellyfish, a touch tank and an underwater climbing wall.
In 2010 the zoo opened their Conservation Carousel featuring 33 hand-carved animals and a chariot.
In 2011 the zoo opened a renovation of their Farmland and a new Train, the A & K Wilber Express.
In 2012 a new, temporary exhibit replaced the Jellies exhibit in Komodo Kingdom, Journey to the Reef. This new exhibit opened on May 26, 2012 and features an octopus, lion fish, clown fish, jellies, seahorses, sting rays and more.
2013 was an historic year for the zoo. Not only did the zoo celebrate its 60th anniversary, but the zoo also opened its largest exhibit to date. On July 20, 2013 the zoo unveiled the Mike & Mary Stark Grizzly Ridge exhibit. This exhibit includes bald eagles, an avairy, grizzly bears, otters, red wolves and coyotes. The opening led to record attendance at the Akron Zoo. Also in 2013, the zoo ask the voters of Summit County to renew the zoo's current levy, which is used for operations and capital. On November 5, 2013, residents of Summit County passed the renewal levy by 73%.