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Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Book Review: Gathering of Animals

By the time William Bridges joined the staff of the New York Zoological Society, often known as "the Bronx Zoo", in 1935, the zoo had already been open to the public for 37 years. Long enough for the park to become established and mature, young enough that many of the society's early luminaries - Raymond Ditmars, William Beebe, Lee Crandall - were still active.  This makes him wonderfully well-suited to write the biography of the institution.  In Gathering of Animals: An Unconventional History of the New York Zoological Society, Bridges, the Society's Curator of Publications, details the first seventy-five years of the history of one of the most extraordinary zoos on earth.

Bridges' story starts with New York in the late 1800's, home to a series of small, decrepit menageries, but lacking a true, scientific zoological park, as Philadelphia and Washington, DC could boast.  This changed when a series of the city's elite joined together to form a zoo.  A site was found in Bronx Park, and a leader was found in the famous conservationist William T. Hornaday, the taxidermist who had largely been responsible for the establishment of the Smithsonian's National Zoo.  A large part of the motivation for creating the zoo, for the Board of Directors as well as Hornaday, was to save North America's most iconic land mammal - the American bison.

The early years of the modern zoo were full of toil, trial, and tribulation, and Bridges details all of these in great detail.  There are sagas of births, deaths, escapes, and the challenges of trying to take care of a collection of animals that no one on earth (except for a tiny handful of other zoos of the age) had every tried to care for before.   Almost every anecdote is usually spiced with the querelous commentary of Hornaday, a prolific letter-writer with an opinion on everything.Some are amusing, like using a walrus pup to assist in moving an ornery polar bear.  Others are disastrous, such as the pestilence that wiped out the zoo's ape collection.  Some seem wrong, like the methods used to "discipline" recalcitrant elephants.  And some, such as the saga of Ota Benga, just seem bizarre.   True, while many of these challenges can seem exasperating and bone-headed to the modern zoo professional, but it's important to remember that hindsight is 20/20, and much of what we now accept as basic knowledge of exotic animal husbandry was learned, trial and error, at institutions like the Bronx.

Portions of the book, scattered about, are devoted to the zoo's sister institution, the New York Aquarium.  These are especially interesting, as the public aquarium was a far newer institution than the zoo, with a far steeper learning curve.  It would have been fascinating to have had more details about the aquarium's history.  Had Bridges written his book later on, he would have seen the history of the Zoological Society expanded to include the annexation, renovation, and rebirth, of three other New York City zoos - Prospect Park, Queens, and Central Park (the history of the later described in some depth in Peter Brazitis' You Belong In a Zoo!).  In many ways, the most frustrating part of Bridges' story is that it ends too soon... like writing the biography of a person, but ending at age thirty, right when they have achieved some stability in life but are still in their prime.  So much as happened to the Society in recent years, not least of all the reinvention of itself as the Wildlife Conservation Society, with active field work, research, and conservation projects across the globe, a future which is only hinted at towards the end of Bridges' book.

I've worked for several zoos thus far in my career, some of which have been fairly young (as in, founded within my lifetime).  I've always wondered what it would be like to work at a facility that was older than my great-grandparents... and Institution (capitalized, you'll note), with a History (also capitalized).  William Bridges wrote a fine history of the New York Zoological Society.  Somebody else needs to write a sequel about the next seventy-five years...

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