Sunday, June 21, 2009

A day at the Bronx Zoo

Yesterday, my friend Gloria and I took a trip to the Bronx Zoo. The story of how this trip came to be is kind of complicated, so I'll simply say that I'm glad that it happened. Although I am in many respects ambivalent about zoos, I appreciated having the opportunity to see animals I will likely never see in the wild. I also relished being able to catch up with Gloria, who worked for a long time as an archivist but whose work now centers upon research and grant writing. I don't see her as frequently as I did when we worked in adjacent offices, and yesterday's outing was a real treat.

We took a chartered bus to the zoo, and for some reason the driver opted not to take the New York State Thruway all the way down to the Bronx. Instead, we headed into New Jersey and then crossed the George Washington Bridge into Manhattan. I've driven over the GW several times, but have never been able to check out the New York skyline while doing so; it's not really possible to do any sightseeing while driving on a two-level, fourteen-lane toll bridge. Grey as the day was, it was nice to have the opportunity to take in the view.

When we got to the zoo itself, we began in the Amphibian House, which is housed in Zoo Center, a Beaux Arts structure that features splendid sculptures of animals. One of the most striking things about this particular zoo is the attractiveness of its grounds. Many of the zoo's 19th- and early 20th century buildings are still standing, and the grounds around them are still are still carefully landscaped. The newer buildings are less ornate but nonetheless complementary, and the grounds have a sylvan, tranquil quality that makes it easy to forget that one is in an urban environment.

The Wildlife Conservation Society, which operates the Bronx Zoo, was founded in 1895. It maintains its own archives, and detailed information about its holdings is available through the New York State Historical Documents Inventory.

We then moved onto the Monkey House, which features a host of captivating small monkeys from South America. The Silvery Marmoset is native to Bolivia and Paraguay.

I kept my camera's flash turned off during my visit to the zoo. Although I'm sure that the animals are used to flash photography and all sorts of other disruptions -- kids sometimes yell at animals, tweens and teens sometimes strike out on their own, and parents don't always instruct or supervise -- I thought it only fair to minimize the amount of disturbance I caused.

We then moved onto the Madagascar exhibit, which is quite new. Fish swam around this partially submerged Nile Crocodile . . .

. . . which was resting its head on rocks above the water line.

This Day Gecko is also a native of Madagascar.

The lemur area sits at the center of the Madagascar exhibit. The Bronx Zoo has at least two Collared Lemurs and at least half a dozen Ring-tailed Lemurs. Photographing them was really difficult: they are fast, active animals!

We moved on to the Birds of Prey area. I loved the almost comically grim look of these Cenereous Vultures, which are native to southern Europe and northern Africa and can be found as far east as China. I vividly recall a sequence of Peanuts strips in which Snoopy pretended to be a vulture . . . until a real vulture landed beside him and scared him senseless. I think that Charles Schultz used a Cenereous Vulture as the model for his drawing of said vulture.

Although we somehow managed to miss the great apes, we spent quite a bit of time in the Africa section of the zoo. The baby Giraffe on the right, who was born in February of this year and dubbed Margaret by zoo personnel, was keeping a close eye on her mother and the other adults.

It's just about impossible to see the entirety of the Bronx Zoo in a single day, and we didn't have the chance to take the monorail that allows visitors to see the elephants and many other large African animals. We saw only this skull, which belonged to a male African Elephant that in 1989 was illegally killed for its tusks. The zoo has situated this skull on the periphery of the Giraffe habitat and posted signs that discuss the problem of poaching and the Wildlife Conservation Society's efforts to combat it.

This Lion cub, named Moxie on account of her playful, gutsy personality, was relaxing in the shade with her mother. Her father was resting nearby.

I mentioned above that I have mixed feelings about zoos, and seeing this Polar Bear brought all of my negative feelings to the fore. As the zoo's Web site indicates, Polar Bears are solitary, highly mobile creatures: a given bear's home range is between 93-186 square miles, and adults travel alone unless they are seeking a mate or raising young. The habitat of the bear pictured above is smaller than my apartment. The bear itself seemed listless and bored; toys, occasional treats, and the opportunity to smell noisy humans and their food are poor substitutes for the freedom to roam, hunt, and reproduce at will.

The Grizzly Bears, who live next to the Polar Bear, seemed slightly happier, if only because they are more social and can be housed as a group and because their habitat is slightly larger than that of their next-door neighbor. Moreover, as the zoo's signage makes it plain, these bears cannot live in the wild. All of them originally came from Montana or Wyoming, and all of them were deemed "nuisance bears" because they persistently visited areas settled by humans. If the Bronx Zoo hadn't taken them in, wildlife authorities would have killed them.

The zoo's signage also indicates that most of these bears carry permanent reminders of their past encounters with humans: x-rays have revealed buckshot or bullets embedded in their flesh. The bear pictured above constantly shakes its head as it walks -- not normal for a bear -- and Gloria and I wondered whether this behavior is the result of past head trauma.

The Tiger habitat, which is much newer than that of the bears, is much larger. The Tigers have a relatively large wooded area in which to roam, and the zoo makes a conscious effort to keep them mentally and physically active. "Enrichment" sessions involving toys or treats (or toys containing hard-to-get-at treats) take place several times a day.

These Père David's Deer exemplify the good work that zoos can do: originally native to China, these deer are now extinct in the wild. The Bronx Zoo and other zoos that hold captive populations of these animals are now trying to reintroduce these deer to their native habitat.

The Bronx Zoo has a lengthy history of helping to rebuild wild animal populations. The American Bison who live at the zoo are descendants of a small group of animals brought to the zoo in 1899. Other descendants of the zoo's American Bison were returned to the West, and most of the 20,000 wild American Bison that roam through Yellowstone National Park and other protected areas trace their lineage to the Bronx Zoo herd.

We ended our day with a late lunch at the zoo's cafe, where we were joined by one of the resident Indian Peafowl. Native to the Indian subcontinent, these beautiful, noisy creatures have the run of the zoo and move freely from habitat to habitat; however, they seem to have sense enough to avoid the areas housing the lions, tigers, and bears. The peafowl and ducks, which are also free to move about the zoo's grounds, have little to no fear of people, and this peacock was not shy about seeking handouts from the humans seated outside the cafe.

We left the Bronx Zoo tired and wet (spring in the Northeast has been cool and very wet, and yesterday was no exception), but very glad we came and enthused about the prospect of making a return trip at some point in the future.

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