At a time when New York, like most other cities, is a bit down at the heels, its zoos are blossoming into a complex of interrelated animal parks unique in the world. What once were three shabby zoos will be, when the last one opens this year, three freshly conceived and beautifully designed units in a system run by the New York Zoological Society, a private membership agency that long ago brought the Bronx Zoo to top ranking in the zoological world. No longer are Manhattan’s Central Park Zoo and those of Brooklyn and Queens wards of the city, subject to the vagaries of its political and budgetary fortunes.

Over the years since New Yorkers acquired the first of these three zoos, their story has not been altogether pretty. For a century Central Park’s zoo, which opened in 1864, was hardly more than a bare menagerie, with scruffy animals in barred cages hardly big enough for pacing.

As the years passed, however, whole new concepts of what a zoo should be began to take root elsewhere, for the most part after World War II, when Europe’s destroyed zoos had to be built from scratch. Universities and societies sent trained scientists into the wilds to study the ways and needs of animals in their natural habitats.

Their findings called into question antiquated ideas about zoos. The public, newly conscious of the dangers of extinction in the wild and cruelty in captivity, organized movements for legislative reform. Advocates brought lawsuits challenging the mistreatment of animals. Newspaper editorials agitated for closing down the “Bastilles.”

This was the state of affairs in the 1980s, when Edward Koch, a zoo buff himself, was mayor of New York. To check the flood of increasing hostility to zoos the city had three choices: to close them down; to spend huge sums to redo them entirely and operate them at a much higher level; or to transfer their rehabilitation and care to an outside agency with the experience and know-how for the job and the talent for raising large sums of money. The obvious candidate for the job-available, ready, and willing, if not altogether eager-was the New York Zoological Society, directed by Dr. William Conway, likewise the presiding genius of the Bronx Zoo.

If Dr. Conway was less than eager, it was only because he could not agree to take on a burden of such dimensions unless assured of major financial help from the city, along with complete freedom to plan and operate. Otherwise, he might well be swamped and drag the enormously successful Bronx Zoo down with him.

An agreement regarding the takeover of Central Park’s zoo was ultimately signed by Dr. Conway and Mayor Koch in the fall of 1981. The negotiations required skill and patience, for which Conway credits Gordon Davis, then commissioner of parks: “He was the point man. Without him it wouldn’t have happened.”

By and large the agreement called for New York to put up half the cost of the zoo’s renovation, approximately $40 million, with the remaining half left for the Society to raise from its star list of benefactors, funds, and foundations. Admissions and food sales would be kept by the zoos. (There had been no admission fee before at the city zoos and a modest one at the Bronx Zoo. Adults now pay $2.50 and $5.75 respectively-not counting special rates for children and weekly free days-still modest compared with prices at other major zoos.) The city agreed to make up any operating deficits, which, it was felt, would not get out of hand because the city would have to approve the annual budget to begin with.

The two other zoos required separate contracts; the outlay for their rehabilitation was to be on a more modest scale but high enough to assure their becoming similarly attractive segments of a carefully planned complex. For that design New York can be grateful not only for the concepts of Dr. Conway but for the imaginative, detailed planning of Richard Lattis, formerly educational director of the Bronx Zoo and now chief of the three transformed city zoos. As for the Society itself, its jurisdiction now extends to the four zoos and one aquarium in New York, a Wildlife Survival Center off the coast of Georgia, and scores of conservation projects around the world.

From the start of negotiations with the Koch administration, Dr. Conway and his colleagues envisioned wiping out the old city zoos as they were. Strongly opposed to the concept of animal parks as menageries, they did not even accept the idea that zoos should be planned primarily as entertainment, though that would always have to be a major component. The purposes of the new parks, as Conway later described them in a statement, are these: “We protect, we propagate, we advise, we advocate, we teach, we study, we inspire.” To fit the three old city zoos into this pattern of lofty intentions, and at the same time make them visually delightful, would require starting from scratch-nothing less.

That is exactly what was intended, and it would take Manhattan’s zoo a long way from the days when it kept hoofed animals that in nature lived in groups and ran long distances housed alone in small enclosures, and big carnivores in cages so small they could barely turn around, much less behave as they would in the wild. Specifically, Central Park’s new design called for removing all the elephants, lions, tigers-almost all the animals associated with zoos in the public mind-and replacing them with creatures well adapted to life in the zoo’s five-and-a-half acres.

Physically, Central Park’s zoo now presents a rectangular pattern, with climatic “zones” arranged around the rim. A large garden in the center encloses the sea lion pool, and attractive shrubs are planted everywhere, even around the few tidy gift shops, cafe, and administration buildings.

In the Tropical Zone, at the southwest corner, a two-level skylit construction presents a slice of forest, complete with waterfall and brilliant tropical birds, colobus monkeys, fascinating golden-haired lion tamarins, emerald green poison-arrow frogs, and much more, including a colony of leaf-cutter ants. The insects can be viewed directly or on closed-circuit television, which shows the swarm in action greatly magnified. Piranha and caiman add an appropriate touch to the Amazonian display.

Walking a few yards north (no one gets tired in this miniature park-within-a-park) the visitor finds himself in the much milder-looking Temperate Zone, an island lake where entertainment is supplied by a troop of exceedingly lively Japanese snow monkeys. The animals here are less exotic than those of the jungle, but include appealing species such as the red panda, hardly commonplace in Manhattan.

The North Zone, undoubtedly the most spectacular of the park’s displays, includes two stunning exhibits. The first is the Polar Circle, where a visitor may watch polar bears, the one exception to the rule against really large animals, swimming under water in a huge glass-walled enclosure, or look down on them from above as they nap or cavort on the adjoining rocks.

An even more beautiful exhibit is the neighboring “Edge of the Pack.” Here in the Antarctic a small regiment of penguins stroll about or gather in small groups like opera-goers at intermission, while others, offshore, dart through temperature-controlled waters under an ingeniously eerie polar sky.

What was once the Flushing Meadow Zoo reopened early in 1992 as the Queens Wildlife Conservation Center. Though not far from Shea Stadium, it is still unknown to millions of New Yorkers, and deserves more publicity than it has had. Costing little more than a third of the money needed to rehabilitate the Central Park Zoo, even though twice the size, the Queens Zoo may lack the gem-like finish of its Manhattan counterpart but misses none of its essential quality.

The difference between the two parks is thematic. In keeping with the overall design, each unit was to serve a purpose of its own, and while Central Park’s was to illustrate animal adaptation to climate, the Queens Zoo would deal with the nature and history of North American animals. With more room, and a shrewd apportioning of its space, it shows bison and elk grazing and running as on a western plain. Bobcats and mountain lions are behind glass so invisible that the viewer scarcely senses the barrier. The lions are particularly striking on this score because of the artificially warmed rocks that lure them out of their dens to do their basking front and center.

Sea lions enjoy a background of waterfalls and rocks, suggesting a handsome segment of California coast, and coyotes can be studied from a covered bridge. Since I visited the park on a snowy day, I missed the botanical displays, but in season visitors will enjoy them-and the changing display of birds. Besides those birds it attracts, there are the sandhill cranes, egrets, and herons to be seen in a marshy area; and Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome, left over from the 1964 World’s Fair, is now a fine and innovative aviary.

Of the remaining environments, all outdoors and without cages, perhaps the most notable is the one that offers playful black bears the pleasures of trees, climbing rocks, and an attentive public. Here and elsewhere throughout the park are graphics so original, instructive, and amusing that they are a source of pleasure to the zoo-goer and stand as a hallmark of New York Zoological Society projects. One of these, for example, discusses all manner of facts about bears: how to tell the black from the grizzly, why polar bears don’t climb and only pregnant females bother to den up in winter. These illuminating signs are charmingly illustrated and make a fine contrast to those of the old-fashioned zoo, which offered only such tidbits of information as, “Leopard (Panthera pardus). Habitat, Africa and Asia. Eats other animals.”

Reconstruction of the last of the zoos, in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, will round out the city’s zoological pattern when the new animal tenants move in, probably late this summer. Primarily it is planned as a children’s zoo. All of the parks already in place include “petting zoos,” where sheep, goats, and other small and gentle creatures may be fondled by small and usually gentle humans under the supervision of keepers. But this animal park will be more than that. Its emphasis will be on education, through talks and demonstrations, with supplies on hand, such as pencils, pads, and games for observing and recording how animals do what they do, and why.

Almost everything that these three animal parks will offer is already encompassed by the magnificent International Wildlife Conservation Park (the Bronx Zoo, as its devotees will continue to call it), which has six or seven times the acreage of all the new parks put together. But for impromptu trips to a nearby haven of tranquility, where adults and children alike may comfortably enjoy contact with nature and the wonders of the animal world, these parks, with their variety of themes, should prove a continuing boon.

Nothing in their availability, however, should diminish the pleasure of periodic visits to the two stars of the galaxy. New Yorkers who have not seen the Bronx Zoo since childhood have yet to see such wonders as the Jungle Walk, where they can amble along a forest path bounded on either side by panthers, crocodiles, and proboscis monkeys. Others might be just as delighted by the vastly changed Aquarium, not long ago the birthplace of two Beluga whales and now the site of Sea Cliffs, an exhibit of coastal environments as long as a football field.

The City of New York is not likely to shave the municipal budget by all these stunning advances in its animal parks. But by greatly enriching its appeal to New Yorkers and tourists alike, while passing along the financial and operational burdens to experts, it can only come out ahead-far ahead.


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