ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – For almost 100 years, the ABQ BioPark Zoo has been delighting visitors with up-close access to a wide array of animals. When it opened in 1927 as the Rio Grande Zoo, it only featured a pair of mountain lions, a pair of black bears, a porcupine, a snake, a bobcat, coyotes, wolves, and a monkey named “Friday.”

“One of the big influencers at that time was a man named Aldo Leopold; he lived in the neighborhood,” says Guest Experience Manager for the ABQ BioPark Allyson Zahm. “He was a really famous conservationist but he sort of had the vision for preserving this area of land along the Rio Grande as a public park.”

Zahm says the first batch of animals the zoo had were gifted to the city and presented as a drive-thru experience. “I don’t think drive-thru zoos were really that common, I think it was just what we had here in Albuquerque,” Zahm says. The zoo closed to vehicular traffic in 1957.

Over the years, the purpose of zoos changed from being where people can observe wildlife to a place for conservation and education as well as looking after the well-being of animals; and the Rio Grande Zoo was no different. “Today, we are building a new exhibit in [the Asia exhibit] that is huge with waterfalls and places to swim, places to climb, places to hide that’s all built with the animals’ well-being in mind,” says Zahm. “It’s really about shifting the focus towards awe-inspiring delight, which is still important, but it’s all about making sure animals have the best lives possible while they’re in our care.”

The Rio Grande Zoo has, over the years, been a major player in animal conservation. Zahm says the zoo was involved in the 1980s with the rearing of North American bald eagles, and helped them get off of the endangered species list.

In 1981, the Mexican wolf conservation program and exhibit opened.”We’ve been able to have wolf pups here that were born and eventually released into the wild,” Zahm says. “I think last year, we had 12 that we sent out to Mexico to begin their education to become wild wolves.”

The landscape of the zoo is constantly changing as well. The rainforest exhibit opened in 1975, remodeled in 1999, and eventually demolished for the current Penguin Chill exhibit to take its place.

Zahm says the modern zoo is vastly different from what you might remember from when you were a kid. “If someone was to come, back in 1967, and were turned off by what they saw because they didn’t feel like it was great for animals, I think the biggest misconception is that zoos still look that way,” says Zahm. “The real modern zoo can be a really enriching experience for an animal.”

View Photos of the Rio Grande Zoo from the 1950s and 60s