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Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Zoo Review: Wildlife Conservation Society (Bronx Zoo)

I like to think of myself as an understanding person, and I tend to have a hard time staying mad at people.  That being said, I don’t know if I will ever be able to forgive my friends for rushing me at the Bronx Zoo.  I could have happily spent a week exploring the campus – hell, the World of Birds alone could have eaten up a day – but was forced to have four hours.  Okay, to be fair it was supposed to be three, but I was our navigator and I pretended to be lost on our way out so that I could sneak in a few more exhibits…

There are lots of good zoos in the United States.  There are a handful of truly great ones.  There is only one Bronx Zoo.  I don’t think I’ve ever been so impressed and so inspired by a zoo.  It’s not just the exhibits – though the displays are masterpieces.  It’s not just the exciting and colorful history, though that too is incredible.  Nor is it the collection of animals, even though there were many species there that I – who have been involved in zoos for years and have visited dozens – had never seen before.  It’s the commitment – not only to the zoo’s animal collection, but to animals around the world.  

The formal name of the Bronx Zoo – and its sister institutions – is the Wildlife Conservation Society.  The word “conservation” is banded about a little loosely these days, but no one can match the commitment of WCS.  From the plains of Patagonia to the jungles of Sulawesi, WCS conducts, funds, and supports research and conservation work in dozens of countries around the globe, and is one of the leading forces for wildlife in the world.  It has sponsored some of the biggest names in wildlife research – George Schaller, Alan Rabinowitz – and has led to many exciting discoveries.  WCS supports projects that go beyond the animals in its own collections.  None of its institutions display jaguars, for instance, but the society (through Rabinowitz) was instrumental in creating the world’s first jaguar preserve in the Cockscomb Basin of Belize.

I was thinking about all of this vaguely as I entered the zoo, but mostly I wanted to look at animals, and since I didn’t have much time, I had to look fast.  American bison were, fittingly, one of the first species we saw; “fitting,” I saw, because it was the desire to save this species from extinction that largely led to the formation of the Bronx Zoo in the 1800s under the leadership of the zoo's first director, William T. Hornaday.

The Asian collection was particularly stunning – beautiful, spacious, wonderfully landscaped habitats of tiger, snow leopard, and red panda lay off the main pathway, while marshy yards house Pere David’s deer, black-necked cranes (one of many “firsts” for me), and Asian waterfowl.  The Jungle World building was considered a state of the art masterpiece when it first opened, and it has lost none of its glory.  Densely planted islands of jungle housed langurs, gibbons, and tree kangaroos while small-clawed otters and Malayan tapirs meandered in their pools.  Outside, the excellent monorail ride took us past rhinos, elephants, more tigers, and an impressive collection of rare Asian hoofstock – barasingha, babriussa, and gaur, among others.

The Asian collection was hard to top, but Africa gave it a run for its money.  The African Plains was one of the first natural zoo exhibits in American zoo history, and it still compares favorably to many newer zoo exhibits.  Here, lions survey antelope herds in a predator-prey exhibit. Giraffes and zebras are found nearby, as are spotted hyenas and African wild dogs.  In the most beautiful of the African exhibits, a troop of geladas (baboon-like primate endemic to Ethiopia) and a herd of ibex roam an enormous grassy hillside.  The exhibit is so large that animals easily wander in and out of view.

As wonderful as all of these exhibits are, it was the animal houses that impressed me the most, mainly because they featured so many species that were new to me.  The World of Reptiles (immortalized to me in Peter Brazaitis’ You Belong In A Zoo!) was full of beautiful exhibits with magnificent reptiles – painted terrapins, lace monitors, anacondas.  I’m sure that the average visitor is most interested in the crocodiles, but the animals that I was most interested in were the Kihansi spray toads.  These quarter-sized amphibians were driven to extinction in their native Tanzania through loss of habitat.  The Bronx and Toledo Zoos have worked together to save the species, not only breeding them in captivity when none remained in the wild, but assisting the Tanzanian government in recreating the lost habitat and reintroducing the species to the wild.  The new Madagascar exhibit housed lemurs, fossa, crocodiles, and tortoises; while the inside of the building is full of natural habitats, the outside contains the Victorian-era splendor of the zoo’s old Lion House (which it previously was).  The World of Birds delighted me even more.  The exhibits were magnificent – some of them multi-story – and full of birds that I have never seen before: capercaille, maleo, pink pigeon, cock-of-the-rock, and more.  Small wonder that many zoo experts consider the Bronx Zoo bird collection to be America’s finest.

Despite all of these wonderful animals, I left the zoo dissatisfied… there wasn’t enough time!  How could I have visited the Bronx Zoo and not seen the famous Congo Gorilla Forest?  I missed out on the Aquatic Bird House AND the Sea Bird Colony, meaning that even with all the new animals I got to see, I missed out on the adjutant storks and Magellanic penguins.  And who knows what the Children Zoo would have been like?  Well, my friends wanted to get out and beat the traffic, so I guess I can understand them wanted to leave a little early.  I guess I’ll just have to go back and see the rest of the zoo later…

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