From the Mysterious to the Presidential: Ten Things you didn’t Know about the Bronx Zoo
Zoos are magical places, especially now that the emphasis in most of them has changed from caging animals to conserving them. And to me, everything magical is by its very nature mysterious, too. What better place to imagine a motive for murder than among all the wild things that inhabit zoos, or wonder how they came to be there?
I was a lucky kid. I grew up twenty minutes away from the great Bronx Zoo. There was always a parent to take a group of us on a Saturday afternoon to visit the cats roaming the seemingly vast African plains or view the latest gorilla babies. If you like the zoo, too, then I’m sure you have a favorite—from San Diego to Detroit to Cleveland and many in between. Let me tell some things about my zoo.
- Before there was a zoo in New York City, an odd assortment of exotic animals was assembled sort of spontaneously—mostly the gifts of people who had brought back “beasts” from their travels that couldn’t really be kept at home, so the animals were dropped off in what, in 1859, became Central Park. Never a part of the grand plan of Calvert and Vaux for the park, the collection was known as a “menagerie.” There were bears and bison and a camel and some swans. Eventually, the rich New Yorkers who built mansions along Fifth Avenue couldn’t stand the smell! So the city fathers had to look for a new home for the collection. A small zoo was established within Central Park in 1864 (it is still there and it’s fabulous!), but Philly…you did beat us with the first urban zoo in the U.S.
- What to do with this assortment of animals in the city by the late 1800s? The only place in the five boroughs that lent itself to a vast spread of land that could be molded into friendly homes—like natural habitats—for animals was in the Bronx. By this time, conservationists had seized on the idea that menageries for the display of caged animals were inappropriate, and the creation of zoos for the purpose of educating the public and preserving the species was essential. So the city purchased 265 acres of Bronx wilderness—not the mean streets of crime novels and noir films, but a truly untamed wilderness—and opened the great zoo in 1899 (when William McKinley was president). That year, the zoo had 843 animals featured in 22 exhibits.
- The Boone and Crockett Club? Really? In 1887, Teddy Roosevelt and some of his hunting buddies founded a club named after hunter-heroes Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett. (How I remember my adolescent crush on Fess Parker, who played both Crockett and Boone on TV). Roosevelt viewed Boone and Crockett as pioneers who opened the American West but were also aware of the consequences of overhunting game. Not only did this club’s members work for the protection of Yellowstone Park (1894) and create the National Forest System (1899), they also founded the organization that has become the superb Wildlife Conservation Society, and so it was Teddy Roosevelt and crew who actually developed the Bronx Zoo.
- My, how we’ve grown! Care to venture a guess about how many animals are in the Bronx Zoo today? There are more than 4000 of them, and they represent over 650 species. More than 2,000,000 tourists visit this wilderness outpost every year.
- What’s new at the zoo? Every time I think I’ve seen it all, something tempts me to return to the Bronx because there is always a new exhibition or an effort to save some critically endangered species. Just this spring, eight brand new baby gharial crocodiles were introduced at the zoo in an effort to make us all aware of how rare they have become. Once an aquatic reptile found all over the Indian peninsula and Indonesian islands, only a small number still exist in the wild. I learned from that song in Peter Pan— “Never smile at a crocodile…”—but I rest easier with a gharial than with other crocs. They have very long snouts, which are extremely narro, so they can’t chow down on humans like their cousins can. These crocs are much more adept at fishing.
- As you may know, most zoos in the U.S. have decided to end programs that have kept elephants in captivity. The Bronx Zoo has one elephant left—she’s named Happy (I know, many folks think that’s oxymoronic). She was born in Thailand 45 years ago and orphaned along with six siblings. Her name comes not from enjoying her “solitary confinement” at the zoo, but in honor of the Seven Dwarfs of Disney fame. Her last sibling, Grumpy, died years ago. And although Happy has given great joy to several generations of kids who have visited her at the zoo’s Wild Asia exhibit, she will be the last elephant to live there. The terrifically sad fact is that every day in Africa, 96 elephants are killed…usually, for their ivory tusks. So although the zoo might not be the proper home for elephants, we’ve got to find some way to save them in the wild.
- The first director of the Bronx Zoo was a man named William Hornaday. Hornaday spent years in the American West, sent by a museum to “inventory” bison in Montana and Wyoming. Witnessing the decimation of the American bison turned him into
an animal conservationist and, with Teddy Roosevelt, he is crediting with preserving the bison from extinction. It fascinated me that Hornaday’s original training and occupation—and the reason he was sent out west—was as a taxidermist. He went from stuffing wild animals to saving them, which is a pretty great turn of events.
- There is some spectacular architecture at the Bronx Zoo. All of the original buildings, now landmarked and known as Astor Court, were designed by the architectural firm of Heins and Lafarge. The pair’s most majestic structure is the magnificent Cathedral of Saint John the Divine (a setting in Silent Mercy); they also used the unique Guastavino tiles that you can still see at the zoo in Grand Central Terminal (Terminal City) when you stop in there to sample the bivalves at the Oyster Bar.
- The African Plains exhibit opened in 1941 and was a radical change in zookeeping. Not only were the animals released from their cages in favor of landscape that imitated their natural habitats, for the first time, animals were not separated by their taxonomy. Instead, they were set out to live with other species as they did at home: big cats on the plains appeared to be mingling with “hoofstock” such as antelopes and gazelles and zebra. The secret to survival? The cats were separated from their prey by hidden, deep moats that made it impossible for them to get to the more vulnerable creatures.
- One of the best sights at the zoo doesn’t involve the beloved animals that live there. It’s a 40-ton glacial erratic—an enormous pink-granite rock formation, deposited on site in the Bronx sometime during the last days of the Ice Age. Legend has it that 70 pounds of pressure applied at exactly the right spot will cause the Rocking Stone to rock about one inch. It’s mammoth—and I’ve never seen it budge.
Next time you’re in New York, think about spending a few hours at the Bronx Zoo. You might find yourself talking to the animals, but I promise you’ll enjoy every minute of your visit.