Designed by Park Commissioner Ray Lambert in 1916, the zoological park originated as a fenced deer preserve established by Ludwig Mahnke in Brackenridge Park in 1902. By 1915 the preserve had grown, and new space was needed to accommodate the animals. Lambert chose to create a zoological garden in an abandoned rock quarry adjacent to the park. He designed the zoo around the quarry’s natural setting, terracing the stone walls for the creation of animal enclosures. An extensive canal system was constructed from the San Antonio River, which flowed along the site’s southern edge. The zoo opened in 1929 and within the year contained two of the first cage-free animal exhibits in America. The San Antonio Zoological Society formed in 1928 and began to manage the zoo in 1931.
Today the zoo encompasses 55 acres northeast of the Japanese Tea Garden. The space contains a network of brick and cement pathways that direct visitors to ten park areas dedicated to various ecosystems and animal families. The zoo contains 750 animal species within exhibits that focus on the natural habitat of the animal and that allow for a wide range of movement and activity. A pond containing a fountain and a footbridge marks the center of the site. Many canopy trees encircle the zoo and are interspersed throughout, providing shade and screening from nearby development. The San Antonio Zoo operates a miniature train service that departs from a depot just beyond the zoo’s southwestern boundary. The railway leading from the depot runs along the zoo’s southern border before heading into Brackenridge Park.