Inspired by my visit to the Bronx Zoo this past Sunday, I did some poking around for interesting nineteenth-century tales of the 113-year-old institution, and will posting on these all week. While not the first zoo in New York City—the Central Park menagerie, established decades earlier, bears that honor—the Bronx Zoological Park quickly became known as “the” New York zoo. As a 1913 visitor from London jealously put it,
“[w]ithin the two hundred and fifty acres of land and water comprised in the Bronx Zoological Park the visitor finds at once the expression of American ideals and the reproach of European zoos” (Aflalo).
This writer praises in particular the zoo’s emphasis on wide open spaces (“[p]erspective, immensity, a middle distance that would measure the furthest limit of Old World menageries”) that effectively mimick a “natural” or “wild effect”: “It is wild Nature, so cunningly adapted to the semi-artificial requirements of a menagerie….” (Aflalo).
Given American investment in accessing the reinvigorating, masculinizing “wild” during the turn of the century, the Bronx zoo could have been expected to quickly supplant the Central Park zoo in popularity, but in fact attendance at the midtown location spiked, “proving conclusively the growing folly of the suggestion heard occasionally, that the Central Park animals be transferred to the Bronx Zoological Gardens” (Dept. of Parks report). Then, as now, “the Central Park menagerie is of great service, being available to many thousands who could not afford the time nor the carfare for a visit” to the Bronx (Dept. of Parks report).
There is one function that the Central Park menagerie fulfilled then that it no longer does: raise sheep for sale. In Central Park’s annual sheep sale (held in June, most likely on the aptly-named “Sheep Meadow” lawn that today is pebbled over with suntanning loungers on any fair-weather day), the Zoo’s stock were “recognized as the first in the country” (Dept. of Parks report).
Aflalo, F.G. “The New York Zoo.” Zoological Society Bulletin 2.24-60 (Oct. 1906-Nov. 1913): 324-6.
Report for 1904. City of New York. New York: Martin B. Brown Co., 1905. 37-9.
Images from http://www.newyorkcityzoos.com/