Posts Tagged With: Bronx Zoo

William Beebe’s “Fascinating Game”

Beebe colorfully-illustrated article in the New York World reflects his beliefs about birds and artistry.

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.”

Inside Beebe’s bird house visitors participated in a game of identification.

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.

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Great snake escape: imagining the Bronx Zoo’s cobra

I have never like the World of Reptiles. Compared to the brighter world of animals outside, it was always too dark, cold, and creepy. As a kid, its corners seemed to harbor imaginary slithery critters waiting to pounce. It didn’t help that my older brother stood behind me, tickling my arm, and screaming, “Snake!”

The Bronx Zoo's World of Reptiles is temporarily closed to root out an escaped cobra. (Wikicommons)

So when I heard an Egyptian cobra had escaped its enclosure in the Bronx Zoo’s reptile house, chills shot up my spine despite the nearly two thousand miles between us. The Egyptian cobra’s moment of escape was apparently unobserved. Zookeepers noticed her gone on Friday, secured the building, and are now trying to lure her out of hiding assuming when she is hungry and thirsty, she will emerge.

The Bronx Zoo is deftly trying to ward off panic. Their website announces only that the World of Reptiles is temporarily closed. They are “confident,” says zoo director Jim Breheny, the snake did not get out of the building. “Right now, it’s the snake’s game,” he states, telling us not to expect daily updates.

Damer's depiction of Cleopatra's death with a cobra wrapped around her wrist at the Boydell Shakespeare Gallery, London. (Wikicommons)

Egyptian cobras are known for killing Cleopatra and inspiring fear in the otherwise heroic Indiana Jones. My childhood visions of escapee snakes seems to be shared by writer J.K. Rowling, though her scene is not one of silent spine-tingling creepiness. Rather, her title character Harry Potter, leans on a bar peering into a glass-fronted enclosure listening to a snake’s (a boa constrictor in Rowling’s book, but a python in the film) desire for freedom. Unwittingly, Harry frees the reptile that slithers off lisping, “Thank you.”

In the non-magical world, we must communicate with snakes through Twitter. Because of course, when a cobra escapes the zoo, its first act of freedom is to acquire an iPhone and join the social media sphere. The clever creator of @BronxZoosCobra reported the snake’s adventures in New York City, from trying to catch a cab to cozying up inside an apartment for the night. She thanked the animals from Madagascar (for inspiration) and said she supported the revolution in her native Egypt. “Obviously,” she wrote wryly, “I’m a big fan of freedom!”

When I first discovered the cobra’s Twitter feed, she had just announced hilariously: “Leaving Wall Street. These guys make my skin crawl.” I went out to dinner and, when I came home, her following had nearly doubled from 8700 to 16,290. This morning it was nearly 20,000. Shortly after 9 am, Twitter suspended the account. Now, all you see when you click on @BronxZoosCobra is: “This user does not exist.” (An archive of cobra tweets is preserved in the NY Times City Room.) [UPDATE: @BronxZoosCobra is back online as of this afternoon and has 87,500 followers.]

Well, of course she doesn’t exist…not as a feasible Twitter-user, anyway. When the inevitable children’s book on the event is pitched, will publishers reject it because the cobra did not herself tell the story? Is Twitter making a stand against anthropomorphism? Or are animals (and the humans who would put words in their mouths) simply not welcome on the site whose icon, ironically, is an animal?

Fears of the repercussions of the venomous cobra’s escape can be read in the deletion of @BronxZoosCobra and in the Bronx Zoo’s silence (they have not tweeted in 19 hours). If the reptile is indeed slithering through the streets of New York City, humorous tweets become fodder for panic. If the zoo finds the animal dead (or must kill it in the process of recapture) the incident becomes another rallying point for the anti-zoo crowd who have already railed against Knut’s recent death at the Berlin Zoo.

And what if they never find it?

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Remembering zoo pals

One day after Knut’s untimely death, visitors to the Berlin Zoo flocked to his now-empty enclosure to pay their condolences, leaving behind candles, flowers, plush bears, and hand-written notes. These minature memorials remind us that zoo visitors enjoy emotional connections to the animals on display.

When the Portland Zoo lost its beloved Asian elephant, Pet, they remembered her with Thai lanterns in a tradition from the elephant’s native land. The zoo kept many of the gifts left by visitors at Pet’s enclosure in the days after her death. A memorial page permanently displays a keeper’s memories and dozens of visitor “memories and condolences.”

The St. Louis Zoo lost a celebrity gorilla known as Phil in 1958. Upon his death, the zoo’s director, George Vierheller commented, “He was one of my great pals” (zoo press release). Now, a statue representing Phil stands on zoo grounds as remembrance. Another zoo icon, Guy the Gorilla, lived thirty years before dying of a heart attack at his home, the London Zoo, in 1978. His body was stuffed and on display at the London Museum of Natural History for several years. The London Zoo now displays a bronze statue of Guy on its grounds.

A bronze statue now helps visitors to the London Zoo remember their beloved Guy the Gorilla. (Wikicommons)

The Berlin Zoo has a memorial book on site, and another online, where visitors can permanently record their memories of Knut and leave parting words for the polar bear. The online memorial book already has over two thousand entries, in several languages. The zoo has also set up a memorial fund to help protect polar bear habitats.

Ceremonies and statues invite visitors to mourn publicly, while memorial books allow for private contemplation. Should zoo animals be so remembered? Some say no. At the Bronx Zoo, an unmarked forested area holds the buried bodies of several large, former residents, including an elephant named Tuss who died in 2002. In a New York Times interview, Dr. Robert Cook, then chief veterinarian at the zoo, stated that the burial ground is not something he ever considered opening to the public. “It’s more for their bodies to go back into nature,” he explained. “Everyone’s view of life and death is different. My memories are still when I close my eyes I see Tuss looking at me, and standing in front of that site wouldn’t enrich that.”

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