The first zoo for Hilo was opened in 1968, on a two-acre site next to the Onekahakaha Beach Park. While convenient to beach goers and park users, the location was considered temporary because:
1. There were no adjacent areas available for expansion
2. The site was located in a primary tsunami inundation zone
3. The presence of tidal ponds and the proximity to swimming beach areas created a potential for contamination of near coastal water.
In spite of its temporary and inadequate facilities, the small children’s zoo was one of the most popular attractions operated by the Department of Parks & Recreation with nearly 90,000 attending in 1974.
Because of the site limitations at Onekahakaha, plans were initiated in 1972 to relocate the facility to a 30 acre site within the 172 acres at the Panaewa Recreational Complex. From 1974 to 1978, conceptual planning and design for a permanent zoo started during the tenure of then Zoo Director Dr. James Juvik.
The architectural firm of Oda and McCarty of Hilo was selected for the planning and design work, and former Honolulu Zoo Directors Paul Breeze and Jack Thorpe participated in the undertaking.
Construction of Pana‘ewa Rainforest Zoo was completed in June 1978, and the zoo was officially opened in September of that year. Situated on 12 acres in the Pana‘ewa Forest, the zoo receives approximately 125 inches of rain a year and currently houses almost 200 animals.
With the help of the Hawaii Island Palm Society, Hawaii Chapter of the American Bamboo Society, Hawaii Chapter of the American Rhododendron Society, Big Island Water Garden Club, and Hilo Orchid Society, the zoo was transformed into a multifaceted botanical garden to complement the unique animal collection. Because of the growing botanical collection, in September 2006, the Hawaii County Council passed an ordinance to rename the zoo PANA‘EWA RAINFOREST ZOO & GARDENS.
The Pana‘ewa Rainforest Zoo & Gardens was designed as an educational and recreational facility with the exhibits designed to blend with the existing terrain and vegetation. Major emphasis was placed on native flora and fauna with rainforest animals added as an attraction for the zoo. It is the only zoo in the 50 United States located in a tropical rainforest.