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Thursday, June 16, 2016

Zoo Review: WCS Central Park Zoo

When people talk about "the New York City Zoo", they most often mean the Bronx Zoo, the flagship facility of the world renowned Wildlife Conservation Society.  The Bronx isn't the only zoo in New York City, however - it's not even the oldest.  That honor belongs to the much smaller Central Park Zoo, found on the island of Manhattan.

Located behind the city's old Arsenal Building, the Central Park Zoo rivals Philadelphia Zoo and Chicago's Lincoln Park Zoo for the title of America's oldest.  Like many zoos, its origins are murky - enough animals collected at a certain location, most of them cast-off exotic pets, until someone was forced to do something with them, and a zoo was born.  Although the zoo housed gorillas and elephants and lions over the years, its real history began in the late 1980s when the City finally became embarrassed of the dilapidated conditions at the zoo, along with the other small zoos scattered across the boroughs.  In order to improve things, the authorities of the Bronx Zoo were asked to assume the responsibility of renovating and managing the Central Park Zoo, along with the Queens Zoo and Prospect Park Zoo.  They rose to the task magnificently.

You'll have to excuse the pretty lousy pictures for this post - my camera was acting up and the battery was barely charged, so I'm not really doing Central Park Zoo much justice here...

Most of the bigger animals are gone from Central Park Zoo, as one would expect from a facility six acres in size.  Some, like Pattycake, the gorilla, were relocated to the Bronx Zoo itself.  The entire campus was redivided into three zones - Polar, Temperate, and Tropical - a thematic arrangement which remains to this day.  (For a more detailed history of the zoos of New York, see William Bridges' Gathering of Animals, or Peter Brazaitis' You Belong In A Zoo! for a history of the early days of the new Central Park Zoo).

The indoor Tropic Zone building is the nucleus of the zoo's bird and reptile collections; visitors walk through a free-flight aviary, where crowned pigeons, Bali mynahs, green peafowl, and other tropical birds fly free.  Side exhibits on the ground floor house fruit bats, saki monkeys, and black-and-white ruffed lemurs.  Upstairs is a small, treehouse like gallery with viewing of small reptiles, as well as a few small mammals (including rarely exhibiting cloud rat).

On the opposite side of the zoo is the polar area.  The zoo's second indoor exhibit building is dedicated to sea birds.  One side of the darkened hallway is a long habitat of Antarctic penguins - most notably towering kings, the second largest of the penguins - while puffins are found on the opposite sides.  Both habitats feature underwater viewing.  A pool of harbor seals and a Eurasian eagle owl are outside. After the zoo's transition under WCS, the largest animals left in the zoo were polar bears, which occupied their outdoor exhibit (complete with underwater viewing) for most of the zoo's recent history.  The polar bear exhibit is now currently inhabited by grizzly bears - the pool level has been dropped to provide more land-space for the grizzlies.  It can be challenging to take an exhibit that was custom made for one species and modify it for another, but I was pretty surprised at home well it worked in this case with just a simple touch.

Linking the polar and tropical regions is, fittingly enough, the Temperate Territory, which focuses on East Asian species.  Japanese macaques (also known as snow monkeys) inhabit an island exhibit, while red pandas frolic in the trees.  Muntjac and white-naped cranes are also found here, as is the zoo's newest exhibit, for snow leopards, the first big cats at the Central Park Zoo since its reopening.  Across from the snow leopards is one of the most gorgeous waterfowl aviaries I've ever seen, featuring some rarely exhibited sea ducks - long-tails, red-breasted mergansers, and harlequins - as well as pheasants and storks.  At the center of the zoo is its most iconic exhibit, the old sea lion pool - a renovated holdover from the old days.

A small petting zoo - formerly a separate component from the old zoo - is nearby.  I almost skipped it, running short of time and not being that interested in goats and cattle.  I'm glad I didn't, though - it also features a beautiful waterfowl aviary and a handsome family of Patagonian cavies.

Central Park Zoo has been given a gift that few other zoos have been fortunate to receive - a chance to completely reinvent itself as a better facility.  It's amazed me over the years how iconic this zoo has been in American pop-culture, largely due to its location.  It's been featured in The Catcher in the Rye and Breakfast at Tiffany's, made cameo appearances in TV shows (I recently watched an episode of Law and Order: SVU that showed the detectives interviewing a witness while watching the sea lions), been in comic books (Marvel Comics vigilante The Punisher once famously fed a mobster to the polar bears), and served as a setting for movies.  Some of these movies, like the Madagascar movies, of course feature animals that the zoo hasn't exhibited for decades - lions, zebras, giraffes, hippos - but no one ever accused Hollywood of realism.

All of this is rather amusing for a zoo that's so small and features so few animals, albeit in very attractive enclosures.  Perhaps that is because, unlike the Bronx Zoo, located at the edge of the city, Central Park is in the heart of Manhattan - as you walk the zoo, the skyscrapers of America's biggest city form an imposing backdrop.  It just goes to show, what they say is true- location, location, location...

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