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. The Central Park has been designed in the 1850s by Frederick Law Olmsted, 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.
The Central Park Zoo history does not follow the American way of careful planning of zoo establishment in a public park. It is not the best example of how Americans thought how a zoo should look like, as in this new city park the animal collection accumulated unbidden, to the dismay of Olmsted. The menagerie was “ill-arranged, ill equiped, not adapted to economical maintenance”. And when the working-class people crowded the free exhibits on Sundays, which violated bourgeois decorum, it came close to commercial entertainment. But, although careful planning was the ultimate goal of American zoo development, many zoos in the Untited States had beginnings like the one in Central Park.
Central Park Zoo
Since the 1860s, the southeast corner of Central Park has been the home of three different zoos: the menagerie, the zoo of 1934, and what is today known as the Central Park Zoo, which kicked off in 1988.
The Central Park Zoo is both the oldest NYC zoo and one of the newest. It had an uncertain beginning about 1861⁄1862 when the first animal donations, mostly unwanted pets, were made to Central Park employees. Early animals of the menagerie, as it was called, consisted of a black bear, a pair of cows, deer, monkeys, raccoons, foxes, opossums, ducks, swans, pelicans, eagles and parrots. First, they housed the animals in the basement of the Arsenal building and in small cages in the park. The same Arsenal building still exists and is located at 64th Street and 5th Avenue. In the first known formal report of 1873, a much larger collection was reported with exotic species, such as African elephant, giraffe, Cape buffalo, eland, zebra, Malayan tapir, kangaroo, hyena and sloth bear. Some of these were temporarily housed for P.T. Barnum and other circus owners. In 1864, an enclosed space was set aside near the Arsenal to give the animals that were donated a permanent home. All in all, the menagerie was home to many exotic animals, housed next to each other in small cages, and therefore nicknamed a “postage stamp collection”.
In the 1930s, the menagerie needed repairs and New York City Parks Commissioner Robert Moses, perhaps the most influential man in the city’s planning history, felt the City needed a zoo of its own. Therefore, he formally built the Central Park Zoo on the same site. The Zoo reopened on 2 December, 1934. It was state-of-the-art and attracted lots of visitors. The Zoo contained a comfort station and a restaurant overlooking the sea lion pool. It would contain many wild animals, including three types of bears,elephants, gorillas, tigers, birds, monkeys and hoofed animals.
But the world of zoos and zookeeping progressed and to enable to keep up with this progress the City of New York, still owner of the Central Park Zoo, asked the New York Zoological Society to take over the Zoo’s management and operate it according to the best practices. First action of the NYZS (now called the Wildlife Conservation Society) was to renew the Zoo according latest views on zookeeping. Naturalistic habitats were developed and many animals had to leave. When the Zoo reopened in 1988, sterile cages with bars had been removed as were most of the large animals except for sea lions and polar bears.
The Zoo is organised into three climatic zones — tropical, temperate, and polar. Although many historic sites were removed, a few connections to the past remain, in the form of original brick friezes, paving stones and statues. And even two buildings from the zoo of the 1930s remain. The former monkey house is now the Hecksher Zoo School and the former bird house is now the Central Park Zootique gift shop. Inevitable, a children’s zoo has been added to the real zoo in 1998, with a walk-through aviary and domestic animals in the petting zoo. The sea lion pool has always been located at the centre of the Zoo. Of the species on display nowadays, the sea lions and the polar bears are two species that have always been at the Central Park Zoo. The latest addition, in 2009, has been the snow Leopard exhibit, which holds two females and a male snow leopard.
The Zoo is part of the Species Survival Plan Programme (SSP) of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums that guides American zoos in their breeding programmes.
(Source: Zoo and Aquarium History, edited by Vernon N. Kisling, Jr., 2001; Animal Attractions by Elizabeth Hanson, 2002; New York City Zoos and Aquarium by Joan Scheier, 2005)