William Beebe believed zoos had the potential to inspire. Visitors must be, he insisted, “pleased, entertained and instructed.” Artists, he continued, should observe grace and color. Ornithologists should find answers to their scientific inquiries. Foreigners should view reminders of their homeland with pride, and the “child of the slums” should stand “speechless with delight.” Beauty, knowledge, nostalgia, and enlightenment were all pieces of Beebe’s ideal exhibit, and his ambitions for the zoo were as political as they were aesthetic. The zoo provided an escape from urban life, enlightenment of the masses, and a space for conservation education. The latter intention was a goal with concrete objectives. Ladies, wrote Beebe, should swear to never wear feathers again after “seeing them adorning the living form of their rightful owner!” It was this conservation message that truly defined the New York Zoological Park as something other than animal amusement. Beebe envisioned his bird exhibition as a place in which minds were changed about personal interactions with nature and wildlife.
When the New York Zoological Park opened in 1899, its exhibits had included the Reptile House, buffalo range, alligator pool, sea lion enclosures, beaver dam, and bear dens. One of the most praised exhibits was the Aquatic Bird House. Cages lining the exterior of the building contained birds of prey–owls, eagles, hawks, and vultures. But the inside, wrote one journalist, “was a revelation.” A photograph from the time showed ducks, flamingos, egrets, penguins, geese, storks, pelicans, and “other water fowl from many climes” standing around a small concrete pool. There was a door at the far end, and two palm trees framed either side of the enclosure. Upon his arrival, Beebe took charge of this collection of birds. In addition to those in and around the Aquatic Bird House, Beebe was responsible for the Duck Aviary, the Winter Shelter House, and the half-completed Flying Cage. Altogether there were 36 avian species and 175 individual birds.
Beebe was unimpressed with these exhibits and collections. When he assumed responsibility in 1899, he joked that he had become the curator of a handful of ducks and geese. He was more pleased when the Flying Cage was completed. In June 1900, Beebe released one hundred birds into the enclosure, which was 150 feet long, 75 feet wide, and 50 feet tall. In contrast to the concrete surroundings of the Aquatic Bird House, the Flying Cage was wide open, contained rooted trees, and was bisected by a naturalistic stream. New enclosures featured numerous pheasant cages, facilities for ostrich, a wildfowl pond, wild turkey range, macaw tree, crane paddock, and the House for Perching Birds.
By 1902, the Bronx Zoo’s initial success had secured funding for additional buildings, including the Antelope House and the Lion House. These exhibits impressed the English writer and sportsman F. G. Aflalo, who visited the zoo in 1906. “The visitor finds at once the expression of American ideals and the reproach of European Zoos,” he wrote. “Perspective, immensity, a middle distance that would measure the furthest limit of Old World menageries, to which it is as New York’s flatiron buildings to mud hovels in Connemara.” Aflalo suggested that the Bronx Zoo embodied ideas specific to American culture regarding the abundance of the natural world. It was an expression, he said, of the nation’s “freedom from the trammels of tradition and immunity from the handicap of obsolete ideals of architecture, as well as to that liberal policy of progress which is the comfortable equation of public subsidy and private generosity.”
Beebe’s contribution to this mass “expression of American ideals” opened, fortuitously, on July 4, 1905. The House for Perching Birds stood grandly on Baird (now Astor) Court at the center of the zoo. “From an aesthetic and utilitarian point of view,” boasted Beebe in the NYZS’s Bulletin, “there is no doubt that it excels most other buildings of its kind in the world.” The enclosures lived up to the zoo’s overall goals of providing ample and aesthetically pleasing space for its animals. Its ceiling was equipped with movable glass panels to allow ventilation and light. The openness of the space and its high ceilings exemplified Aflalo’s idea of an American obsession with “immensity.” The specimens were abundant and diverse. Inside was Beebe’s pride and joy–a small flying cage (36 x 15 x 20 feet) including potted trees and flowering vines, an environment he described as “happily combining a profusion of flowers with brightly-colored song birds.”
Within the flying cage of the House for Perching Birds, a variety of species lived together. This break in traditional bird display was criticized by European aviculturalists. Generally, each enclosure housed just one species, which prevented conflict between birds and provided neat and orderly labeling of enclosures so visitors could be told exactly what they were seeing. In Beebe’s cage, however, all attempts to direct the viewer’s gaze were given over to randomness. Beebe provided visitors with picture-coded identification cards, which encouraged visitors to make a game of watching and naming various bird species as they flew around freely within the enclosure. Beebe believed that this exhibition technique allowed visitors to engage actively in their own experience with, and observation of, his bird collection.
The critical European aviculturalists were skeptical about Beebe’s endeavor. They complained that the glass roof would create climate trouble; the potted plants would attract mice and rats; and the mixing of species and introduction of new birds to already stable enclosures would lead to the intimidation and death of some birds. Additionally, they claimed Beebe’s exhibit would confuse the public. Visitors would be flustered by the picture labels and desire the straightforward labeling of one species in one cage with a single label. Beebe’s cage, said one, “can only have been conceived by someone entirely unacquainted with birds.”
While Beebe conceded that climate and rodents presented difficulties, he stuck by his other methods of display. He insisted the public was curious and interested in the active observation encouraged by his identification cards. He saw encounters between visitors and bird identification as “a fascinating game” that resulted in the acquisition of “considerable knowledge of several species of birds.” Mixing species encouraged a realistic picture of birds as they existed in the wild.
Excerpted from Maximum of Wilderness: The Jungle in the American Imagination (University of Virginia Press 2012).
Resources & References
Beebe, C. William. “History of the Bird Department of the Zoological Park,” Bulletin of the Zoological Society (June 1910).
Bridges, Gathering of Animals: An unconventional history of the New York Zoological Society. New York: Harper & Row, 1974.
Hornaday, William T. “Zoological Garden Nearly Completed,” New York Times, May 17, 1908.