Posts Tagged With: 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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Memorializing extinction: monuments to the passenger pigeon

“For one species to mourn the death of another is a new thing under the sun. The Cro-Magnon who slew the last mammoth thought only of his prowess. The sailor who clubbed the last auk thought of nothing at all. But we, who have lost our pigeons, mourn the loss. Had the funeral been ours, the pigeons would hardly have mourned us.”  – Aldo Leopold

Martha on display in the 1950s. Courtesy of the Smithsonian.

Just over one hundred years ago, a bird that no longer exists flocked in such great numbers they blocked the sun turning day into night. The extinction of the passenger pigeon is a tale often told by historians of nature. It is a parable of wasted American abundance. Felled for food and feathers, wasted by sport hunters and nest-robbers, these pigeons, remarkable only for the immensity of their migration, existed as a handful of individuals in zoological parks.

Still, some optimists kept looking. They scanned the skies and wandered hopefully through former nesting grounds. In 1909, the American Ornithologists’ Union launched a comprehensive hunt, offering prizes of over $2000 to anyone who located passenger pigeon nests or nesting sites. Though the contest continued through 1912, no sightings reported held any credible evidence of their existence.

Despite such denial of loss, the remaining individuals became living (and then stuffed) memorials to their species. The last living passenger pigeon spent her days at the Cincinnati Zoo. Her name was Martha, after the nation’s first lady. When her mate, George, passed in 1910, she lived another four years as an unlikely and unfortunate celebrity. Her pagoda cage labeled her the last of her kind. She was, according to Christopher Cokinos who chronicles avian exintctions in Hope is the Thing with Feathers, the first endangered species specimen to garner such attention.

A statue likeness of Martha outside her pagoda at the Cincinnati Zoo. Courtesy of Roadside America.

When Martha died on September 1, 1914, the zoo immediately iced her body and shipped her to the Smithsonian. At the pagoda where people once pilgrimaged to see the last of a species, stands a memorial. A statue remembers Martha herself near the building’s entrance. Inside, an exhibit tells the story of passenger pigeon extinction and has several stuffed birds on display. The contrast of living animals outside and dead inside is unusual for a zoo and is a powerful juxtaposition.

At the Smithsonian, Martha’s body was preserved and then put on display. In the halls of the U.S. National Museum, Martha’s body served as a reminder and a warning against the excesses of American culture. Though Martha is no longer on display, her body still lies in the Smithsonian’s collections, at the National Museum of Natural History, underlining her importance in the stories Americans tell about themselves.

Another memorial lies far from the site of Martha’s demise, in the woods of Wisconsin where it is thought an Ohio boy with a BB gun shot the last wild passenger pigeon. There, the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology installed a bronze plaque on an oak tree engraved with the following words: “Dedicated to the last Wisconsin passenger pigeon shot at Babcock, Sept. 1899. This species became extinct through the avarice and thoughtlessness of man.”

When the plaque was dedicated in 1947, naturalist and nature-writer Aldo Leopold spoke eloquently of the event’s significance. “We meet here to commemorate the death of a species,” he began. “This monument symbolizes our sorrow. We grieve because no living man will see again the on-rushing phalanx of victorious birds, sweeping a path for spring across the March skies, chasing the defeated winter from all the woods and prairies of Wisconsin.” Leopold painted a pastoral picture of the landscape with its now-extinct wildlife and called attention to its place in that environment. Its disappearance changed a visual marker of the seasons. Not only was a bird species lost, but a rhythm, an aesthetic.

A plaque honoring the pigeon and proclaiming the avarice of man in Wisconsin’s Wyalusing State Park. Courtesy Wisconsin State Parks.

But why, Leopold asked, do we mourn the loss of a species? “Perhaps, we now grieve because we are not sure, in our hearts, that we have gained by the exchange.” More poignantly, Leopold wondered how lost species could be remembered: “There will always be pigeons in books and in museums, but these are effigies and images, dead to all hardships and to all delights. Book-pigeons cannot dive out of a cloud to make the deer run for cover, nor clap their wings in thunderous applause of mast-laden woods. They know no urge of seasons; they feel no kiss of sun, no lash of wind and weather; they live forever by not living at all.”

Indeed, Martha in the museum, her pagoda, the statue of her likeness, keeps the passenger pigeon alive. But no longer are they signals of seasons; they stand as harbingers of extinction. They warn of the ability of human activities to be both destructive and protective. In embodying the pigeon with such meanings, we tell an emotional history of lost abundance. But Leopold warned of the hubris of telling pointed parables: “We who erect this monument are performing a dangerous act. Because our sorrow is genuine, we are tempted to believe that we had no part in the demise of the pigeon.” But, he continued, it was people just like us who brought about the death of this species. They believed that is was “more important to multiply people and comforts than to cherish the beauty of the land in which they live. What we are doing here today is publicly to confess a doubt whether this is true.” Leopold concluded: “This then, is a monument to a bird we have lost, and to a doubt we have gained.”

This is part of an ongoing series, Understanding Extinction, with research supported by the Animals & Society Institute Fellowship.

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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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