Apart from imitation of European zoos, American zoos were also products of the movement to create public parks and careful planning. The detrimental effects of the city on both health and morality should be avoided by establishment of large country parks, according late-nineteenth-century ideas. This led to public parks on the outskirts of many American cities, like Philadelphia, Cincinnati and Chicago. Prospect park (a 237 ha public park in the New York City borough of Brooklyn) has been designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux after they completed Manhattan’s Central Park in the 1850s. Frederick Law Olmsted was probably the best known of nineteenth-century park planners, and the founder of the profession of landscape architecture. He believed that meditating on nature in the surroundings of a large country park would offer psychic restoration to tired city workers. Olmsted himself liked zoos, but was opposed to too many large animal houses, consuming precious green space. A display of deer could enhance the rural scenery, but a zoo like the one in Regent’s Park in London distracted from the regenerative power of the natural landscape.
Prospect Park Zoo
The Prospect Park Zoo history follows more or less the American way of careful planning of zoo establishment in a public park. A few features of the original park design did already serve zoological purposes. Like a wild fowl pond that served as a haven for water birds, a deer paddock that was a penned-in area for deer, and a paddock for sheep that were used for the park meadows grass maintenance. An informal menagerie began to take shape in May, 1890 when the newly appointed president of the City of Brooklyn Parks Commission, George V. Brower, donated three young cinnamon bears. It was mainly through donations of animals by rich or prominent individuals that the menagerie grew, and by 1893 a regular menagerie was established. The menagerie continued to accumulate animals in the first decades of the twentieth century, generally donated by prominent individuals and institutions. It formed a varied collection of specimens both native to North America and other regions of the world.
This haphazardly developed menagerie fell into disrepair and parks commissioner Robert Moses selected the site to built a formal zoo, as part of a larger revitalization program of city parks, playgrounds and zoos. The plan was drawn by the same architect that designed the Central Park Zoo, Aymur Embury II. He designed a half circle of six brick buildings centered on a seal pool. Built of red brick with limestone trim, the buildings featured scenes from Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book. On opening day, July 3, 1935, the zoo featured an extensive bear pit, a seal pool, a Lion’s house (the current Animals in our Lives building) an Elephant’s House (the current Animal Lifestyles building) and a house for monkeys, birds, and horned animals (now the World of Animals building).
As was the case with the Central Park Zoo, time and increased knowledge about the needs of animals in captivity eventually made the old Prospect Park Zoo obsolete. Activists were pressing for major renovations of the zoo, which, in 1983, was rated by the Humane Society of the United States as one of the “10 worst” zoos in the country. Others felt that a zoo was not in keeping with the original design of Prospect Park and urged its complete removal from the grounds. A fatal accident of an 11 year-old boy scaling the fence to the polar bear pit only served to underscore difficulties with the fifty year old facility.
During those days an agreement was signed (between the Koch Administration and the then-named NY Zoological Society, now Wildlife Conservation Society), that the Central Park, Prospect Park, and Queens zoos would be administered by the WCS.
The Zoo closed to the public in June 1988. During 5 years of demolition and renovation the exteriors of the Aymar Embury buildings were preserved, but badly deteriorated interiors were gutted. Prospect Park Zoo was predestinated to specialise in educational children programmes and house smaller, unaggressive animal species. Naturalistic habitat exhibits replaced bars, cages and pits, and three major exhibit areas were designed to engage children in learning about wildlife: The World of Animals, Animal Lifestyles, and Animals in Our Lives. The facilities were turned over to the WCS in April 1993. When the Zoo reopened on October 5, 1993, it became the fifth facility of the WCS network of wildlife parks in NYC.
Historians will enjoy noting that the best of the old Zoo remains in the friezes from The Jungle Book that still adorn the buildings. Furthermore, the Lioness and Cubs sculptured by Victor Peters in 1899, originally located in the Park and moved inside the Zoo by Robert Moses to protect it from from children using the lioness as a slide, is nowadays located at the base of the twin staircases at the main entrance.
As all WCS zoos, Prospect Park Zoo is AZA (Association of Zoos and Aquariums) accredited.
(Sources: Animal Attractions by Elizabeth Hanson, 2002; New York City Zoos and Aquarium by Joan Scheier, 2005; Wikipedia)