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Humans have put wild animals on display since ancient times. About 1500 B.C. Queen Hatshepsut of Egypt established the earliest known zoo. Five hundred years later, the Chinese emperor Wen Wang founded a zoo that covered about 1,500 acres. Rulers seeking to display their wealth and power established small zoos in northern Africa, India, and China. The ancient Greeks established public zoos, while the Romans had many private zoos. During the Middle Ages, from about 400 to 1500 A.D., zoos became rare in Europe.

By the end of the 1400s, European explorers returned from the New World with strange animals, and interest in zoos renewed. During the next 250 years, a number of zoos were established. Some merely consisted of small collections of bears or tigers kept in dismal cages or pits. They were gradually replaced by larger collections of animals that received better care.

In 1752, what is now the oldest operating zoo, the Schönbrunn, opened in Vienna, Austria. Other European zoos followed. In the United States, the Central Park Zoo in New York City opened in 1864, followed by the Buffalo Zoo in New York in 1870, and Chicago's Lincoln Park Zoo in 1874.

Workers were needed to care for the animals in even the earliest zoos. However, this care probably consisted only of giving the animals food and water and cleaning their cages. Little was known about the needs of a particular species. If an animal died, it was replaced by another animal from the wild. Few zoos owned more than one or two animals of a rare species, so the keepers did not need to be involved in observations or research on an animal's lifestyle, health, or nutrition.

The modern zoo is a far cry from even the menageries of earlier eras. Today's zoos are still in the entertainment field, but they have assumed three additional roles: conservation, education, and research. Each of these roles has become vital due to the increasing pressures on the world's wildlife.