The Honolulu Zoo is the only zoo within a radius of 2,392 miles. It is also the only zoo in the United States that originated in a King’s grant of royal lands to the people. In 1876, King David Kalakaua, Monarch of Hawai‘i, made lands of the Leahi Crown Holdings available, “to the people of Hawai‘i.”
The 300 acre parcel was primarily a marshland of old fish ponds, lagoons and islands. In 1877 King Kalakaua dedicated Kapiolani Regional Park named for his consort Queen Kapiolani. Appointed Park Association members developed the unpromising land with the help of royal subsidies to display the King’s private bird collection and to feature a horseracing track.
In 1914, the City of Honolulu assumed responsibility for the park and the first Park Director, Ben Hollinger, began collecting animals. He began with a monkey, bear and an African elephant “for the children of Hawai‘i.” With a world-wide reputation for its Bird-of-paradise collection, in 1938 “Kapiolani Bird Park” grew to include three large aviary complexes. E.H. Lewis, noted ornithologist and superintendent of the bird park on Santa Catalina Island, CA. was brought in to supervise the establishment of “modern” techniques for breeding and bird care.
In 1947, 42.5 acres within Kapiolani Regional Park, was designated as the Honolulu Zoo. Paul Breese was hired as the first Zoo Director and worked to developed its first Master Plan In 1952, the zoo was converted to a “popular” layout showing animals in taxonomic groupings of bird, reptile and mammal exhibits. The first director was succeeded by Jack Throp, and the staff increased to twenty-eight. Jerome S. Marr became the third director in 1979.
The modern Honolulu Zoo originated in 1984, when a second Master Plan was developed for a Tropical Zoological Garden. It organized all exhibits into three tropical ecological zones: the African Savanna, Asian and American Tropical Forests, and Pacific Islands.
It was during this time that Don G. Davis became the fourth director with Ken Redman as his assistant. Zoo staffing grew to between 80-85 employees. In 1993, Ken Redman, was named to the Director’s position. Until his retirement in 2008, he worked on updating the zoo’s Master Plan and re-formulating the mission statement:
The mission of the Honolulu Zoo Society is to support the Honolulu Zoo in its mission “to inspire stewardship of our living world by providing conservation, education, and meaningful experiences to our community. The Zoo emphasizes Pacific tropical island ecosystems and our traditional values of ecosystems and our traditional values of mālama (caring) and ho`okipa (hospitality)."
Operated by the City and County of Honolulu, the Waikiki land on which it is located belongs to the Kapiolani Charitable trust by an agreement between the Republic of Hawai‘i and the Kapiolani Park Association. The aim of the agreement was for the now 220 acres of Kapiolani Regional Park to remain a place of natural beauty and ornamental landscaping, and to ensure free, recreation grounds for the benefit of Hawai‘i’s residents and visitors.