TWO ZOOS ONE BOY
Nearly a hundred years after its founding in 1895, the New York Zoological Society, the consortium that manages each of the major zoos and one aquarium in the five boroughs, rebranded and is today known as The Wildlife Conservation Society. A few weeks ago, I traveled to the verdant and expansive Bronx Zoo and then to the bucolic but limited Central Park Zoo. It should be better known that members of the WCS are afforded E.U.-style access to both, as well as to the other accredited organizations: The Queens Zoo, The Prospect Park Zoo, and The Coney Island Aquarium.
During both visits, the reality of exploring these spaces as an adult quickly set in. My childhood memories of zoo trips are marked by boredom – no sleeping polar bear could appeal to me more than the level 76 Blastoise on my Gameboy Color – as well as panicked coming-of-age moments. It is almost too easy to recollect holding sweaty hands with the first of many summer camp crushes while we struggled to catch sight of a sea lion snatching a herring from midair.
I visited the Bronx Zoo over Halloween weekend: the kids were rampant, dressed as everything but animals. One family was costumed as the full Ghostbusters squad. The zoo is enormous, a sprawling nature center within the Bronx Park that is itself in the middle of the borough that, despite an economic slump underwritten by a dearth in the new money or middle class resurgence affecting Manhattan, Queens, and Brooklyn, is home to this place, North America’s most diverse collection of wildlife.
When it’s finally my turn to go on the “Wild Asia Monorail” journey, Lou the conductor speaks in a wise-guy monotone that excites a bit when it describes exotic names – like a wild horse subspecies called “Przewalski’s horse” – and reveals a bit of an accent from somewhere between Bay Ridge and City Island. It’s admittedly comforting to hear that voice – a native describing the animals’ diets, preferences and nicknames to the 40 or so of us on the ride. He sounds like a guy who could've grown up on the block in Jackson Heights where my dad and his brothers hung out as kids. He could be one of the circumspect union dudes that my dad would hire to “survey” our house in Astoria for any electrical or plumbing improvements. Instead, he’s describing a Markhor, a type of goat that exhibits particularly lush facial hair, with the flattery I’d once reserved for elementary-school Valentine’s Day cards.
The traffic racing down the Bronx River Parkway, the eastern boundary of the park, serves as an outsized reminder that we are still within an urban center, when we see two Asian Elephants — Patty and Maxine — who, separate from it all, seem content laying about with toys that include a backscratcher (a glorified garden rake) to itch those hard-to-reach places and a large pool to spray themselves and swim in. The zoo’s approximation of a Southeast Asian jungle is only just that – a few steps up from the Epcot Center – but that sense of false intimacy is in many ways what makes a zoo a zoo. It is, in some sense, the price of admission.
Lou elaborates on the kindness we should have for these creatures, passing along WCS’s message of conservation and the prevention of cruelty to animals like the lonesome Indian Rhinoceros we see below. Between stops, the sky darkened precipitating a downpour, and with little warning it began, monsoonlike. An instinctual, almost herd-like panic strikes in the hearts of the park visitors, who quickly began to clear out or head into the park’s covered exhibitions. It’s assumed, of course, that the animals are fine, unaffected the rain. I didn’t get to visit Astor Court, with its Beaux-Arts buildings, a fountain imported from Italy and, I had heard, a house full of monkeys.
Though all can appear so cohesive as to spring from Frederick Law Olmstead’s imaginative original designs, many of Central Park’s medieval-style belfries and arcades, regal busts, and ornate fountains were gifts accrued over time, including in relatively recent decades. Though at their best they serve as complements to the surrounding nature, they can also enhance the feeling of being somewhere magical in the middle of a metropolis. The Delacorte Clock is like this—it is both functional and decorative. A musical timepiece and archway adorned with numerous crowning bronze statues: a hippo playing the violin, a bear with a tambourine, a penguin on drums, a kangaroo playing horns, and a goat playing the pipes, caught mid-pose, turn on an axis and rotate on individual dials every hour and half-hour to one of 32 nursery rhymes. The magazine publisher George Delacorte gifted the clock to the park in 1965, where it has since stood as a gateway of sorts to the Central Park Zoo. The Delacorte Clock wasn’t chiming much during my visit, but passing underneath it triggered the strange feeling of being in a personally special, but still public, space.
The cobbled path into the zoo, with red brick columns and wooden canopies to the right—the sea lion tank visible and glimmering in the sun—benches flank the old military arsenal building which now houses the zoo’s administrative offices, are on the left. The decade since my last visit did little to dull my recognition of the smell of the penguin habitat in the aptly named Arctic Zone – lovable and curious though these birds may be, walking through this and the zoo’s other enclosed area, the Tropical Zone, the rank smell of life made me reconsider what I thought I understood about avian pathogens. My sinuses reeling, I was drawn back to a favorite exhibit in the Tropical Zone, patiently suffering the periodic mist showers as if I were a piece of cabbage in a Key Foods crisper. The piranha tank here is tantalizing. Containing twenty or so of the red-bellied variety, each carnivorous fish swims aimlessly. Even as an adult, they’re still so strange to regard, mouthing at miscellaneous particles that float by, staring dimly at whoever’s stopping by on their way to the mongoose. As my glasses fogged up again, a sign that the mist was getting heavy, I broke into a quick step out of the Tropical Zone, not bothering to see what else I had missed.
It was a disarming, relatively quiet day at the zoo, unpopulated by school groups or stampedes of strollers. Without much in the way of crowds and the gentle sunshine slanting through the trees, one could be forgiven for thinking it was nap time – many of the animals were curled up in personal islands of light. It was a calming reprieve from the intense life of the “Zones,” free to wander from exhibit to exhibit. At one window, a group of kids was asking their parents to wake up the grizzly bears, but a nearby lolling Harbor Seal caught their attention and they moved on.
As with so many institutions in New York, WCS parks have undergone incremental improvements. Mostly, however, the changes have been adverse: a downsizing of its animal holdings and exhibits in these lean years, restructuring around perennially shrinking budgets, hopes to cauterize the damage by reaching out to donors and charging premiums for hot dogs and screenings of “Ice Age: No Time For Nuts” in 4-D.
Alongside predictions that we’re set to lose more than two-thirds of the world’s wild animals by 2020, zoos can appear to occupy a precarious place in late-stage capitalism. Groups like the WCS ostensibly help the treatment of animals and their still-wild counterparts. But with mounting evidence that humans are fully capable of lighting the tinder that could turn the planet into an eternal dumpster fire, the question raised is: Where else are we going to find wildlife beyond self-contained parks and sanctuaries? New York’s zoos are vestiges from a different era. But as long as they exist, we’ll be the beasts at their gates.