City Cast

Who Was Billy Bryan the Black Bear?

Peyton Garcia
Peyton Garcia
Posted on June 29   |   Updated on July 7
How it all started. (Western History Department at Denver Public Library; Peyton Garcia / City Cast Denver)

How it all started. (Western History Department at Denver Public Library; Peyton Garcia / City Cast Denver)

It’s summer, and one of my favorite places to spend this season is at the Denver Zoo, a local institution whose rich history all began with a black bear named Billy Bryan.

Billy Bryan was a gift to Denver Mayor Thomas McMurray in 1896. Though at first he was displayed in a small cage in the center of City Park, he was the impetus for forming the Denver Zoo as we know it today, one of the nation’s industry leaders. In the years after Billy Bryan’s debut, the city found companions for him in other native animals, including other bears — all on display for free at City Park.

By 1910, it became clear that the city had more than just a roadside attraction on its hands, and the first iteration of the Denver Zoo began to take form. Officials were inspired to create a “habitat zoo” modeled after Carl Hagenbeck’s famous zoo in Germany, which was the first zoo to move away from Victorian-style cages and toward a more naturalistic approach. Thus, in 1918, the early zoo’s keepers created a new habitat for the city’s collection of bears, built using molds of a rocky outcrop near Morrison to imitate the animals’ natural environment. It cost the city $50,000 (more than $1.5 million in today’s money) and earned the Denver Zoo national recognition as the first zoo in the U.S. to use naturalistic design — now an industry standard.

Today, Bear Mountain still stands at the Denver Zoo (only now it houses a porcupine), and holds a spot on the National Register of Historic Places.

At 127 years old, the Denver Zoo continues to be a leader in species conservation and wildlife education with field work initiatives taking place around the world. It was one of the first zoos to be accredited through the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, and remains a beloved Denver attraction, still located right in the center of City Park where it all started with Billy Bryan.

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