Zoological gardens have long been a venue to display, research into and attempt to acclimatise animals and birds. A small zoo was established within the Adelaide Botanic Garden in 1858 by its director George William Francis, and a Zoological Gardens Board was constituted under the Acclimatisation Society of South Australia in 1878. Parliament provided development funds to establish a zoo, which opened to the public in May 1883 with RE Minchin, Acclimatisation Society secretary, as its first director. Minchin laid out much of the present pathway system and organised the construction of numerous cages and the importation of animals, taking great care not to remove any trees or shrubs planted by the Botanic Garden’s director, Richard Moritz Schomburgk, on the original site.

AC Minchin, appointed director following his father’s death in 1893, transformed the zoo into a zoological gardens under a separate Act, site and name, and added new exhibits. By 1893 visitors from Europe, the United States and elsewhere were praising the character and planted atmosphere of the gardens. Upon his death in 1935, his son RR Minchin was appointed director and served in this capacity until 1940. The society was re-named the Royal Zoological Society of South Australia in 1938.

Initially covering 6.5ha of Botanic Park, the zoo now occupies 8ha. Uniquely amongst Australian zoos it retains many early architectural features, including the original cast-iron gates and polychrome brickwork (1883) at the Frome Road entrance, the Sir Thomas Elder Rotunda (1884), the main administration building (1887–88), the Lyrebird Restaurant (built in 1891 as a monkey house), the Gatekeepers Cottage (1883), the Elephant House (built in the style of an Indian Temple in 1900) and the Nile Hippopotamus House (1901). The Frome Road entrance was closed when the zoo underwent substantial renovation with the addition of a new main entrance in the Botanic Park, a conference and event complexes, and special enclosures to house two pandas imported from China in 2009 with a view to them breeding in captivity.

In 1980 the state government reserved 1000ha of undulating open and forested mallee land at Monarto, 60km from Adelaide, for an open-range zoo. Opened in October 1993, this biopark (a park containing one or more ecosystems designed and managed as one biological system) has established an international reputation for successful breeding programs. In 2014 the re-named Zoos South Australia was considering moving its lion and giraffe exhibits from the zoo in Adelaide to that at Monarto, a proposal that met with mixed reaction from the human species.

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Marsden, Susan, Paul Stark & Patricia Sumerling eds, Heritage of the City of Adelaide: An illustrated guide (Adelaide: Corporation of the City of Adelaide, 1990)

Rix, CE, Royal Zoological Society of South Australia 1878–1978 (Adelaide: Royal Zoological Society of South Australia, 1978)