The Utica Zoo was founded in 1914 with an initial collection of three fallow deer. The City of Utica owns the 80 acres (32 ha) of zoo property, of which 40 is currently developed. The first permanent building was erected in 1920. The City of Utica Parks Department managed the zoo until 1964, when responsibility was transferred to a dedicated organization. This organization was later chartered by the State of New York as an educational institution. The first professional zoo director was hired in 1966. The City of Utica, despite owning the land, does not financially support the zoo: it is primarily funded by the Oneida County government, the New York State Natural Heritage Program, and fundraising by the Zoo and private donors. Amid financial issues, the zoo lost accreditation from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums in 2006, but intends to become re-accredited.
In 2000, a 15.5 feet (4.7 m) tall metal sculpture of a watering can was obtained by the zoo. This sculpture is listed by Guinness World Records as the world's largest watering can.