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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 18611862 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)

Goal: 7000 tigers in the wild

Tiger range countries map

Tiger map” (CC BY 2.5) by Sander­son et al., 2006.


about zoos and their mis­sion regard­ing breed­ing endan­gered species, nature con­ser­va­tion, bio­di­ver­sity and edu­ca­tion, which of course relates to the evo­lu­tion of species.
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