The William Land Park Zoo opened its gates on June 2, 1927, as the City of Sacramento brought together an assortment of animals from various local parks. At that time, the 4.2-acre zoo was home to a collection of 40 animals that included monkeys, raccoons, birds, deer and other small animals. The Sacramento Zoological Society formed in 1959 to support and raise funds for the zoo as city funding began to dwindle. 1959 also brought the start of the zoo's educational programming. In the early 1960s, the zoo was enlarged to its current 14.2-acre size and new habitats began to spring up in nearly every corner with the help of a $300,000 Zoo Improvement Bond. In 1965, the zoo began charging admission: twenty-five cents. In 1970, the Sacramento City Council adopted the name "Sacramento Zoo."
During the 1980s, zoos began to provide a new experience for visitors by replacing iron bars and concrete walls with protective moats, larger animal enclosures and a more naturalistic look. At this time, a new long-range master plan was adopted that prioritized the need for continued improvements and additions to the zoo. In 1997, as City funding continued to decrease, the Sacramento Zoological Society took over complete financial and managerial control of the zoo. The Claire Mower Red Panda Forest, a habitat for the endangered red panda was built in 2000. The Lemurs of the Lost World exhibit opened in 2004 with Coquerel's sifaka lemurs and black and white ruffed lemurs. The giant anteater exhibit also opened with a glass viewing area rather than mesh. 2005 saw the groundbreaking of the Dr. Murray E. Fowler Veterinary Hospital - a project that was completed in less than one year. The newly renovated and expanded Tall Wonders giraffe habitat opened in 2010. 2011 brought the grand opening of an expanded and renovated otter exhibit, complete with glass that enabled visitors to walk up and interact with the North American river otters. In 2014, the Small Wonders of Africa habitat renovation brought six new species to the Sacramento Zoo. The role of zoos has changed dramatically over the past several decades. The focus of zoos has shifted from showcasing as many animals as possible, to creating a recreational experience that also focuses on the importance of providing an educational premise for which zoos exist. Today, the Sacramento Zoo has three very distinct purposes - education, conservation, and recreation.