(My camera's broken so till I have it fixed I'm using images from elsewhere. This is from the Wildlife Conservation Society headquartered at Bronx Zoo, used in the book "A Different Nature: The Paradoxical World of Zoos and Their Uncertain Future", in which I found some of the historical details below. It's of the first Director of the zoo William Hornaday, at his desk in 1910.)
Last Sunday we took JNH to the Bronx Zoo, for a second birthday outing. Apparently its first Director William Hornaday wasn’t at all happy with it being described as the “Bronx Zoo.” When it opened in 1899 it was called the New York Zoological Park. He told newspapers that “the nickname ‘Bronx Zoo’ is undignified, offensive, injurious, totally unnecessary, [and] inexcusable.”
But of course the name stuck, to the extent that Bronx Zoo is a powerful brand. When we walked up from the East Tremont Ave subway station, following beneath the rickety iron of the elevated tracks before they curved off to the right, we soon saw the huge sign in block capitals above the Asia Gate entrance ahead of us: “BRONX ZOO.”
The place puts all other zoos I have visited to shame. Most leave you with a lingering feeling of guilt for gawping at animals in cramped enclosures. Not so here, where it almost seemed the other way around. Most of the animals appeared utterly at ease in their environment and in pristine condition, somewhat superior to the clumsy crowds who wove their way between the exhibits clutching their crumpled maps and sipping on sodas. (We timed our visit well, arriving only an hour or so after the zoo opened, and leaving by three. By that time the toddlers and babies who had not yet succumbed to their middle-of-the-day snooze emanated hot grumpiness, their tired parents likewise).
Two words particularly come to mind in thinking about the zoo: proximity and participation. Visitors work their way through the middle of some of the enclosures in tunnels protected by glass, so that you are right up next to the animals. Hornaday had been critical of attempts to place animals in realistic habitats when that meant having to keep them far away from the visitors. When the German zoo pioneer Carl Hagenbeck approached him with a concept for “barless bear dens”, Hornaday said that, “I pointed out to him the great disadvantage that would be entailed by having our bears separated from our visitors by a distance of sixty or seventy feet. We deliberately decided against the Hagenbeck idea [and] we have never regretted it.”
Thanks to technological developments, a later Director of the zoo William Conway could go much further in combining realistic habitats with spectator-proximity. He set up an in-house design team that has approached zoo layout as theater. Epitomizing that approach is the Congo Gorilla Forest, which opened in 1999. It was our first target destination (we purposefully didn’t want to try to cover the whole zoo on one visit, we just had a few things we were keen to see while leaving the rest to random encounter). The route there brought us past camel rides for kids, then African Plains with its gazelle, lions and giraffe – and a “Dora [the Explorer] & Diego’s 4D Adventure”.
Once in Congo Gorilla Forest you work through narrow pathways (strollers are left at the entrance) that feel remarkably like navigating a real forest, without the bugs and heat. First we came across an Okapi, just a few feet away behind glass, grazing on a tree. They’re striking creatures, like a cross between a zebra, a gazelle and an Avatar from the recent film, with black extending tongues. This one was displaying his/hers as it grasped the leaves. Then we found the gorillas, getting on with their business rubbing their tummies and yawning and ambling about the place, at ease with the crowds of captivated humans. Words and photographs worked into parts of the exhibit tell you about how the Congo’s forest is threatened. Then on the way out you’re asked to vote how your contribution (some of the features in the zoo cost extra) should be used for conservation efforts.
That brings me to the second word, “participation.” Everywhere throughout the zoo visitors are educated in simple but effective ways about the animals they are seeing. And they’re told stories of conversation and the need for it. One of our unplanned encounters was with the bison. While a group of bison with their mountain-peak shoulder blades sat in a clearing in front of us, we read that they were the zoo’s first conservation success-story. Hornaday, before Bronx Zoo existed, had led an expedition out West to find some bison for an exhibition. The expedition spent five months searching planes where once herds of millions of bison had roamed, and were able to bring back just 25. The expansion of the Northern Pacific Railroad had led to their mass slaughter, mainly for their hides. When the Bronx Zoo opened, Hornaday acquired bison for it and began to build up the herd. From there, bison were shipped back to some of their former locations in the wild: now many of the bison in the Western USA are descendants of those bred in the Bronx.
Two year-old JNH, of course, saw the zoo in his own unpredictable way. For example at Tiger Mountain it wasn’t the tigers that impressed but the fish. Here again you could get right up close. While two tigers sprawled on their rocks a few meters away, right next to us just behind the glass was their cooling-off pool. The water came up to adult belly-level. So it was perfect for JNH to stand pressed up against the glass watching the fish swim their jazzy ballet on the other side. He followed their movements with his hands, “fish up, down, up-down, there, here, there,” one of the zoo memories he would repeat when we got back home.
I realized as we walked around that I have rarely been to a zoo except when I was a child, or accompanying one. They are a place for children to see in the flesh the animals that they read about so much in books. But what do we do with all that knowledge as adults - all those labeled tapirs and colored-in parrots on clipboards? In the midst of a metropolis where our place in the animal kingdom is so easily forgotten, the Bronx Zoo reminds us of the millions of species we share the planet with. It resuscitates wonder and appreciation, even if only fleetingly.