In 1657 Jan van Riebeeck had a granary built in the Cape at Groote Schuur to store locally grown grain. In the late 1700s the Dutch East India Company sold it to ensure their finances, and the new owner had it changed to a residential house. Cecil Rhodes bought the house in 1893 and, disliking the name given to it by its new owner, The Grange, changed it back to its original, Groote Schuur. His architect, Sir Herbert Baker redesigned the house, and Rhodes bought up all the land around that now forms the Groote Schuur Estate.
Rhodes had a herbivorious menagerie established on his estate. When he was given a pair of lions and a leopard, a house was built for them as an extension of the menagerie. Rhodes had envisaged “a spacious and beautiful building: a Paestum temple was in his mind where the king of beasts would be admired in his natural strength and dignity. The old Roman in him pictured the beauty of lions moving through great columns, and he was quite unperturbed, when warned of the sanguinary fights which would ensue. The plans did not go far.
The lion-house idea receded into the background of his mind, or took shape only as a smaller cage-building. Upon his death he bequeathed his estate to the state. Different areas of the estate were managed by different organising bodies, but since Rhodes had specified that the zoo was to be kept open to the public free of charge, it came to be managed by the Public Works Department. In 1930, after the lion house was torn down, and new enclosures built, this area came to be known as Groote Schuur Zoo. It would open every day at 9 and close again at 5 to the sound of a whistle.
In 1975 Groote Schuur Zoo closed for the last time . At the time of the zoo’s closure, animal welfare was coming into public awareness, as living conditions improved in other zoos around the world. This zoo was furthermore expensive to run and with the apartheid government needing the money elsewhere, keeping it open was not financially viable.
In 1999, the part of Groote Schuur Estate that includes the zoo, was incorporated into Cape Peninsula National Park, with the aim of managing and making it accessible to all South Africans. As it stands today in 2012, the lower zoo area is fenced off from the rest of the estate. Anyone who wishes, can simply walk in, and since its closure many have done just that.
The Groote Schuur Zoo can still be visited today. Despite its abandonment, it is still open to the public as it was during its active lifetime. In place of exotic animals, visitors can observe local wildlife and statues of stone lions.
The buildings and various outbuildings are overgrown with vegetation and have amassed graffiti over time. The biggest draw is the lion’s den since it is the only part of the zoo that is still fully intact. Other areas are just collapsed walls and concrete pools with wildflowers growing where animals once roamed.