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Wildlife in New York. No more zoo blues: the animals are back

A human being known as Mayor Ed Koch stood poolside, pulled back his shirt sleeves, and gingerly picked up a mackerel by the tail. A sea lion named Finn saluted the onlookers surrounding the pool, dived from his rock island, and swam toward the mayor. Then the mayor tossed, the sea lion caught, and the crowd cheered - all celebrating the reopening of New York's dramatically transformed Central Park Zoo. In a joint effort by the New York Zoological Society (NYZS) and the City of New York, the old zoo, which once confined big animals in small dreary cages, has been largely razed and rebuilt. The $37 million renovation is clearly an effort toward animal conservation as much as human pleasure. The 5.5-acre zoo, which opened Monday, now provides roomy, naturalistic habitats for smaller animals, as well as enchanting gardens and other amenities for people.

Managed by the city for more than a century, the zoo is now operated by the Zoological Society, which oversees the famous Bronx Zoo and is known for its pioneering work in animal conservation, research, and display. New York City parks commissioner Henry Stern, who calls himself ``a man for all species,'' admits that the society ``can do a better job than we can. We will continue to own the land and the buildings, but they'll be in charge of the animals. It's a marriage.''

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The ``marriage'' contract was drafted in 1980 by William Conway, general director of the NYZS, and Gordon Davis, parks commissioner from 1978 to '83. For animal lovers who criticized the zoo for years, it was a long-awaited solution to the zoo's sad conditions.

There were no critics in sight on opening day. The atmosphere was one of sheer delight and mutual curiosity as the animals and 14,000 New Yorkers caught their first glimpses of each other.

The zoo's 450 animals, representing 110 species, live in indoor and outdoor exhibits divided into three climatic zones - the Tropic Zone, the Polar Circle, and the Temperate Territory.

The Tropic Zone, entirely indoors, matches New York's steamy summer weather. Fairy bluebirds and Peking robins flit about freely in the richly planted aviary, at the core of the two-story building. Several habitat displays encircle the aviary. In one, colobus monkeys swing recklessly from limb to limb. In another, a long-nosed tree snake slithers around a trunk. Big fruit bats flutter among the vines and ferns of their shadowy habitat, while in the ant nest exhibit, 100,000 cutter ants dash about their daily business with the fervor of a rush-hour subway crowd.

The greatest people pleaser on opening day was the Polar Circle's indoor penguin exhibit, which simulates the stark, glacial terrain of Antarctica. The temperature is set at a brisk 35 degrees F., and visitors view the cool scene through a glass panel that enables them to watch these playful birds waddle atop the rocky landscape, or glide to and fro underwater.

``He kissed me!'' squealed a little girl whose nose was pressed to the glass when a penguin bumped it with his beak.

``Are you sure they're not seals?'' asked a young boy, who looked highly doubtful when his father told him that penguins were birds.

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The polar bears are also featured in the circle and are by far the largest animals in the zoo. Their territory is outside, consising of mountainous heaps of simulated rocks and water pools that are kept at 65 degrees F. Visitors can climb about the habitat's perimeter, watching from various levels as the bears lumber over the rocks or leap into the cool pools.

Zoo designers faced some tricky technical challenges: devising heated rocks for the frogs and complex climate control and filtering systems for the penguins; creating an escape-proof ant display, as well as simulated rocks that wouldn't wreak havoc on penguin feet.

According to the zoo's animal curator, Jim Murtaugh, the animals have adjusted quickly to their new homes. The penguins seemed especially thrilled to reach the zoo. After being harvested as eggs on the Falkland and Nelson Islands, incubated and hatched at Sea World in San Diego, then transported by truck and plane in an ice-filled elephant crate, all 39 were hand-carried into their new habitat. ``They went bananas with delight,'' said zoo director Richard Lattis. ``They zinged back and forth, flying under water.'' Adds Mr. Murtaugh, ``It was utter exuberance.''

In addition to the live-animal exhibit, the zoo includes a Wildlife Conservation Center for displays that highlight the worldwide conservation efforts of the New York Zoological Society, and a Zoo School, which carries out an extensive wildlife education program.

The original plan for the 840-acre Central Park, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Voux, did not include a zoo. The idea came after the park was under construction. Jonathan Kuhn, Central Park historian, explains that ``one day in 1858, someone dropped off a small bear at the park gatehouse. A park messenger boy began taking care of the bear, and gradually other animals were brought in and kept in makeshift conditions in the basement, and on the grounds surrounding the Arsenal building at the southern end of the park.'' In 1864, parks commissioner William Conklin established a formal menagerie and had wooden cages built.

By 1934, the menagerie facilities were outdated and dilapidated. Parks commissioner Robert Moses spearheaded a remodeling effort that resulted in the Central Park Zoo, a quadrangle of red-brick animal houses encircling a pool for sea lions.

In its day, the 1934 zoo was seen as grand. Opening ceremonies began with a trumpet fanfare. Then, while thousands of balloons were released, a city official, scheduled to give a speech, instead startled the audience by singing, ``Oh, I went to the animal fair.'' The entire ceremony was true to park commissioner Moses' conviction that the purpose of this zoo was ``to encourage the having of a good time.''

Now, more than 50 years later, the zoo's physical transformation reflects a gradual change in our view toward animals. Certainly, the stated purpose of the zoo is less anthropocentric than it was in 1934.

Says Dr. Conway: ``Our goal here is to get people to think not just in terms of affection for animals, but also in terms of their long-term survival. The Central Park Zoo animals are ambassadors for all other animals throughout the world.''

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