Animal nature, human racism, and the future of zoos.
This Longform Reprint is reprinted by permission of author.
In a memoir published in 1954 in the Bulletin of the New York Zoological Society, the eminent American ornithologist Charles William Beebe recalled an eerie unsettling evening he’d spent some fifty years earlier observing migrating birds from the Statue of Liberty’s outstretched torch. Equipped with a blanket, a lantern, food, and binoculars, and joined by his colleague and friend Madison Grant, Beebe caught the last boat from Manhattan to Bedloe’s Island, where the two men entered the statue and climbed 168 steps to a narrow railed porch overlooking New York Harbor. From their privileged vantage point, the two men could see great flocks of indigenous American birds soaring and wheeling through the sky above the busy port, where ships packed with immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe jostled alongside tugboats, barges, and steamers from nearly every place on earth.
Grant was a brilliant attorney and lifelong bachelor who left an indelible mark on New York City. Descended on his mother’s side from the original settlers of New Netherland and on his father’s side from the Puritans of New England, he remained deeply attached to his boyhood collection of rare turtles and fishes. After graduating from Columbia Law School, Grant helped lead the reform movement that briefly drove the Tammany Hall political machine from power, before settling out to realize his dream of giving New York City the largest and best zoo in the world. In 1897, Grant succeeded in obtaining a 265-acre tract of public land to serve as the home of the Bronx Zoo, whose guiding spirit he would remain until his death in 1937.
As darkness descended on the Statue of Liberty’s torch, the two men experienced profound feelings of disconnection and isolation that were intensified by the glow of the crowded island less than two miles away. As Beebe later remembered, “One felt suspended in midair with no apparent contact with sea or land.” The statue’s torch was lit, and as the winds picked up, Beebe became aware that the statue was in constant motion, oscillating back and forth through a two-foot arc above the waves. He tried to sleep, only to be repeatedly jolted awake by the nauseating sensation that the statue was about to topple headfirst into the sea.
At 11:00 p.m., the two men were greeted by the peeping of sandpipers, the croaking of herons, the thin song of warblers, and the chirruping of sparrows. Enveloped in fog, Beebe had a sudden perception of the migratory instinct that unites human beings and birds. “To write honestly and with conviction anything about the migration of birds,” he explained, the motion of that strange night still very much alive to him fifty years later, “one should oneself have migrated. Somehow or other we should dehumanize ourselves, feel the feel of feathers on our body and wind in wings, and finally know what it is to leave abundance and safety and daylight and yield to a compelling instinct, age-old, seeming at the time quite devoid of reason and object.”
“Without warning,” Beebe wrote, “something hurtled past my head, struck [the glass of the illuminated torch], and fell at my feet—a warm, palpitating by dying Magnolia Warbler.” As the density of the fog increased, birds passed through the periphery of the illumination and struck the area where Beebe was standing, at first intermittently and then in waves. Crouching to avoid being hit, the great ornithologist watched the birds of America zoom in and break their necks against the glass. Grant locked himself in a room inside the statue for the rest of the night.
At dawn, Grant and Beebe emerged from a door in the statue’s base, on which the welcoming words of Emma Lazarus are inscribed on a plaque. Circling the statue, they collected 271 bird carcasses in all, before returning to the safety of their new zoological park in the Bronx.
The Bronx Zoo, located near an old Italian section of New York City’s poorest borough, is the crown jewel among the world’s urban wildlife parks, with 4,000 animals belonging to more than 600 species inhabiting 265 acres of parkland at a cost of $48 million a year. It is managed by the Wildlife Conservation Society, which boasts of running more than 500 projects in sixty-five countries through global field offices whose employees work to advance sustainable development; address issues of global climate change, health and well-being, and natural-resource use; and pursue other noble-sounding objectives that attest to the totality of man’s dominion over the lesser beasts. On my frequent visits to the zoo over the course of three years, I took the number 5 Lexington Avenue express train from my house in Brooklyn to the Bronx in hopes of understanding the literal and metaphoric functioning of a modern zoo, a quest compelled by what I came to realize was my own identification with animals that are forced to live in cages. I was also bothered by a larger and less personal sense of unease that appeared to have no connection to any specific observations I made about the zoo, and that grew deeper over the course of my reporting. Nevertheless, I looked forward to my weekly trips, sitting with my fellow subway riders as the clattering cars emerged at 149th Street into the sunlit glory of the makeshift city of immigrants, drifters, chiselers, parole violators, working stiffs, and other familiar characters who populate New York outside of a few well-manicured precincts of Brooklyn and Manhattan.
On March 24, 1897, Mayor William Strong granted a tract of South Bronx Park to Madison Grant and his New York Zoological Society, which was supported by the wealthiest New Yorkers, including Andrew Carnegie, Jacob Schiff, William Vanderbilt, and William C. Whitney. Grant selected William Temple Hornaday, at that time the most famous conservationist in America, as the zoo’s director; Hornaday had recently resigned from his post as director of the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. To build and maintain the collections, Grant chose Henry Fairfield Osborn, a notably pompous and deceitful man who served as the head of vertebrate paleontology at the American Museum of Natural History and sponsored the excursion to Montana that discovered the first fossilized remains of a lordly predatory that he named Tyrannosaurus rex.1
Ground was broken for the zoo in the summer of 1898, and animals began arriving the following spring more or less at random—gray wolves, California sea lions, two polar bears, three orangutans, seven elk from the robber baron George Gould’s estate in the Catskills, and a Bengal tiger named Dewey. By the 1920s, special orders were being delivered by Frank Buck, an adventurer from Gainesville, Texas, who circumnavigated the globe seven times to bring back to various zoos live specimens of the pygmy water buffalo of Celebes, the long-nosed monkey and the fairy bluebird of Borneo, and the great black cockatoo of New Guinea.
Grant and Hornaday hoped that the Bronx Zoo would be a primary refuge for North American animals threatened by the ceaseless waves of the tired and the poor that Emma Lazarus had welcomed to their shores. In “The Destruction of Our Birds and Mammals,” Hornaday wrote that “the state of Florida, with its once wonderfully rich bird life, has been swept almost as clean of birds as is the Colorado desert,” adding that “unless much more radical and much more general protective measures are taken forthwith, the next fifteen years will witness the total annihilation within the United States of practically all our birds, except the warblers and sparrows, and all our wild quadrupeds, save the rabbits…” Among the culprits Hornaday named were gunners, sportsmen, idlers, market hunters, plume hunters, boys, farmers, egg collectors, and the colored population of America.
Visiting the zoo, I descend from the West Farms Square station platform to Boston Road via a spindly iron staircase. Moms wander past holding outstretched white Styrofoam clamshells of chicken for their kids, while surveillance cameras watch over the gated windows of the Lambert Houses, a low-rise housing project. Seven teenagers form a semicircle of cheap down jackets that look like black Hefty bags stuffed with goose feathers; it is the day after Halloween. Opposite the service gate of the zoo is a deli with a sign in the window—WE ACCEPT FOOD STAMPS AND WIC—that looks like it’s been hand-lettered with a splayed-out brush dipped in a paint bucket full of Wite-Out.
Inside the gates, Joe Briller, a squat, bald man in his early forties, is preparing to receive the first food shipment of the day. He grew up on Webster Avenue in the South Bronx and recently bought a house in the Poconos, from which he commutes an hour and forty-five minutes each way. Joe works nights at the zoo commissary with his friend Quincy Banks, a sweet baby-faced man with brush-cut hair and a solid build who doesn’t mind the long hours the two men spend delivering food to zoo animals. It is safer to be inside the zoo at night than out on the streets, he explains, adding, without rancor, “Animals eat better than us.”
At 3:21 a.m., a large truck backs up to the loading ramp, and Joe and Quincy fill two large freezers with chicken parts, frozen meat, and shrimp. Every animal has its own specialized diet. There is insectivore fare for hedgehogs, reptiles, anteaters, spoonbills, the ibis, and the robins, and a rack of four-pound jars of peanut butter. Between 4:00 a.m. and 6:00 a.m. the produce arrives from the Hunts Point Market on a J. Kings truck. I lose myself for a few moments in the Depression-era romance of the cardboard produce boxes of Happy Yam and Andy Boy broccoli, whose cartoon-lettered illustrations call to mind sad-eyed men and Dust Bowl women with filthy children clinging to their long skirts. Joe weighs out carrots on a man-size produce scale, and then mixes apples and oranges together in a box for JungleWorld according to instructions written in ballpoint pen on his delivery chart. On Tuesdays, the Elephant House receives 60 LBS. APPLES, 40 LBS. BANANAS, 50 LBS. CARROTS, 40 LBS. YAMS, 36 LBS. KALE.
The guys whisk the food—oranges, bok choy, carrots, celery, boxes of cauliflower, and orchard-fresh apples—off the truck at a speed that might seem entirely abnormal to anyone who has never worked on a delivery truck. Last off the truck is a pallet of Cheerios in oversize school-bus-yellow boxes, enough for a district’s worth of third-grade oat lovers. At 5:03 a.m., the deliveries are done. Food for the animals is sorted into cardboard boxes, live mice are added in, and then the boxes are loaded into the back of a heavy-duty golf cart.
The first stop is the zebra enclosure, which receives apples and oranges, while Madagascar! gets the bananas. In the trees outside the Monkey House, which has since closed for good, I see dozens of sleeping peacocks, which, it turns out, fly well enough to roost in branches, away from careering golf carts and other nocturnal menaces. Empty of screaming primates, the exhibit spaces inside the Monkey House look like mud-splattered dioramas from a science fair gone wrong. The menu on the blackboard outside the bear kitchen calls for 25-35 FISH, 3 CHICKENS, and, in bold letters, NO APPLES.
The World of Birds gets cultivated blueberries, apples, mixed vegetables, and 100 large rats. A long-haired guy in his thirties named Jeremy Sanders lays out rats for the birds of prey, whose diet is supplemented with horse ribs and knuckles. Near the industrial-size blender is a tray of wiggling mealworms, a real treat. Nectar-eating birds enjoy “sunbird juice”; it comes in three-pound bags of powder, which is mixed with water to make a liquid that reminds me, when I stick my index finger in and lick it off, of the more familiar sweet concoction known as “bug juice” that I used daily throughout my grade-school and summer-camp years.
Patti Cooper is the official studbook keeper for the lesser birds of paradise, which means that she tracks all the lesser birds of paradise resident in North American zoos. She notes who dies and who is born, and also decides who mates with whom. “Every bird of paradise dies of or with iron-storage disease,” she tells me, hiding behind her role as modest note-taker, which obscures her weightier dominion over life and death. In the 1930s and ‘40s, these birds lived for two or three years at the most, but now they live much longer, she assures me.
Tasha Hook is preparing food for the walk-through aviary, where a wide variety of friends will be partaking, she tells me, in a younger church-lady voice, like the queen of the coffeepot at an A.A. meeting. Today’s neediest cases include a robin that had its foot amputated and a pygmy goose with degenerative arthritis; the goose is being treated with meloxicam, Neurontin, and butorphanol. As we chat, Tasha cuts up fish for a pair of hamerkop storks, in hopes of correcting the seemingly hopeless inequality of their relationship. “She is greedy,” Tasha explains, “and he will let her eat everything out of the pan, because he loves her so much, I guess.”
Wearing a velour Gap shirt over her uniform and wading boots, and with a walkie-talkie wedged securely against her butt, Patti takes me on her feeding rounds at the bee-eater exhibit. She enters the room with a tray of crickets, whose loud night chirrups terrified me as a child more than the police sirens of lower-middle-income Brooklyn did before my parents moved us to the greener pastures of northern New Jersey, where the streets were as empty at night as they were during the day. Golden weavers, magpie shrikes, and a crippled sand plover fly past the exhibit walls, which are made of concrete. I watch Patti toss crickets to the birds, who catch them in mid flight with admirable dexterity. They flutter in the air once, twice, then veer sharply away toward the safety of a fake tree branch. “Doo-doat-doo,” Patti calls, before she exits the cage.
Susan Leiter, the brooder-room keeper, is tending to a pied avocet with an infected left hock in the quarantine rooms. A wounded-looking woman, she sits on the floor surrounded by bottles of painkillers. I stand by the door for a few minutes until she feels more comfortable talking. “They’re better than us on so many levels,” she explains, referring to birds. “They don’t have our guile, our evil, all the horrible traits of human beings. So when they say, ‘I’ll entrust you with my care,’ that’s a very meaningful moment.” By her side is an empty bottle of butorphanol, a powerful narcotic. An injured bird nestles on her lap. “Our little junkie of the day,” she says happily.
Patti takes me to see a pair of ringneck doves who are raising a baby pink pigeon, a species that has shown a startling lack of success caring for its young at the zoo, or, for that matter, anyplace else on earth, which raises the question, Patti agrees, of why the zoo bothers to breed them at all. The process by which the unwitting doves raise their progeny might serve as a useful parable for the wimpy urban parents of high-achieving kids who have displaced the native residents of my old Brooklyn neighborhood and driven real estate prices into the stratosphere. Doves are model partners, Patti tells me, with both males and females producing crop milk; by the time a pink-pigeon baby is nine days old, it is as big as its adoptive dove parents; by the time it is fifteen days old, it is nearly twice their size and requires a constant feeding cycle that exploits the doves’ selfless parental instincts to the breaking point. “It begs them, ‘Feed me!’” Patti says. “And it’s bigger than they are, taking up most of the nesting area. So the parent gets on a perch and stands above the chick in order to feed it.”
The director of the Bronx Zoo, Jim Breheny, lives on the zoo grounds in a house whose exact location is a closely guarded secret. His office is near the sea-lion pool. Here, time moves at a snail’s pace. On the wall of Breheny’s small corner office is a painting of a leopard massacring a pheasant. There is also a fish tank stocked with tropical fish. I am left with the impression of a grown-up boy whose mental age is approximately seven.
Breheny himself sports a walrus mustache and carries himself like an Albany pol from a William Kennedy novel. He dresses the part, in a blue and white striped shirt, a polka-dot tie, and matching blue suspenders. A man of settled routine, he ran the camel ride at the zoo before graduating to night duty. “They like their privacy,” he says, when I ask him whether he ever watches the animals after the zoo closes. “I mean, I’ll go out at night and look at the sea lions, because that’s okay,” he adds. “But all our animals basically come in at night. I don’t upset them.”
Some of his experiences of nature outside the zoo have been unpleasant, he tells me. “You go into Africa and it’s a dry season and it’s a drought. And all of a sudden, there’s nothing,” he says. “The animals that you see are horribly, horribly depressed. I mean, you want to take water out of your bottle and give them water. They’re lying there, weak. They can’t move, they’re covered with flies, their babies are dying, they can’t nurse. The lions are skeletons. There’s no water, there’s no game coming to the water hole. Your dream’s been to go to Africa, so you save $12,000 so you and your spouse can go, and you want to go see Eden, and this is what you see.”
According to “The Human Footprint and the Last of Wild,” a recent study by Eric Sanderson, who is an ecologist at the zoo, and several of his colleagues, fully 98 percent of arable land for the world’s major crops is now “directly influenced” by human beings, a statistic that suggests Breheny’s African experience is hardly unique. The idea that the earth has become a functional extension of humankind, which Sanderson et al. illustrate through colorful satellite maps, is a new beginning of biblical proportion in which the old outmoded human concept of nature has no place. As inhabitants of a new epoch, which geologists have named the Anthropocene, we should properly understand nature as a sequence of enclosures like parks and zoos that provide their inhabitants with graduated levels of protection from toxins, diseases, and other man-made threats. The yearning for contact with a nature that exists outside ourselves, like the desire for love, may be hard-wired into our brains, a fossilized remnant of a prior stage of human evolution that no longer helps us navigate the world in which we live.
In the essay, “Naturally Cultural: The Zoo as Cultural Landscape,” the authors Bonnie C. Hallman and Mary Benbow discuss the evolution of Western zoos in three distinct stages. There is the “menagerie,” whose rows of cages with single specimens were intended to reinforce “notions of human power and superiority over the natural world in the age of colonialism and empire”; the “living museum,” which “emphasized ecological relationships…and species conservation” through enclosures built to resemble jungles, woodlands, and the like, and which were meant to banish the emotional response to human dominance over less powerful animals that naturalist Desmond Morris called “the shame of the naked cage”; and the “conservation center,” where zoos “exhibit active concern about the exploitative relationship humans have with animals,” thus bringing human visitors “inside the cage.” Although the latter two stages of modern zoo development are well represented at the Bronx Zoo, the primary mode of display seems to me to be eco-tainment—a fourth stage, in which giddy amusement-park tricks offer a measure of relief from the knowledge that nature is only another man-made illusion.
The beguiling sleight of hand that allows visitors to the Bronx to believe that they are somewhere else is performed by human beings who are masters of their chosen arts; the animals are simply props. Ray Oladapo-Johnson, the only native African working at any higher level of the zoo when I visited, is the curator of horticulture. Born in Nigeria, he was educated in England before returning to Lagos to create artful landscapes for the wealthy children of the dictator Sani Abacha’s regime. He is a kind and loving guide to the ways in which plant life can be used to fool the eye. “The key thing here is to create a feel that transcends the exact specifics of what you would find growing in the Congo, simply because we can’t,” he explains. Honey locust trees look like acacia trees, and give you the feeling of the Serengeti. The density, height, and types of available foliage are equated, flipped, and transformed according to grammatical laws that only a lifelong wanderer could hope to master.
Ray’s interest in animals and plants began, he tells me one day as we watch a troop of gorillas strip leaves from the trees he planted, when his mother went to work at a U.N. office in Addis Ababa, across the street from a palace belonging to the lion-keeping emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie. His mother then sent him to an English public school in Taunton whose lush green lawns and foliage looked nothing like Africa. Returning to Lagos on school breaks, he found the city primal and throbbing, so unlike the streamlined, cosmetic cities he had grown used to in the West. The alternation between extremes of wealth and poverty shocked him. “You could be in an air-conditioned Mercedes-Benz and look outside, and you will see abject, complete poverty this minute, and the next minute, fifteen minutes later, you get a manicured neighborhood, the palm trees, cut lawns, beautiful villas,” he remembers.
When Ray was fourteen, he left England to care for his mother, who had suffered a breakdown and shut herself up in the family mansion and would speak only to Ray and his older sister. One day, he was walking along a little road off Adeniyi-Jones Avenue, alongside a ravine, and saw a nursery run by a small African man, surrounded by flourishing plants. The man spoke only Yoruba, and Ray spoke English. What the plant man was selling Ray realized, was a feeling, like being covered from head to toe in a soft blanket.
His most important task, he understood, was to figure out how to get money to buy more plants so that his mother would have something to nurture when he went back to school. “She says, ‘Go and buy for the house some tomatoes, I want some yams, I want a pineapple, get some fresh oranges,’” Ray tells me. “The fourteen-year-old goes to the market, of course, shorts and flip-flops and a T-shirt, whatever he’s wearing that day. And he haggles them down, so that when he’s coming home he can stop at the guy’s nursery and use the change that he gained from the haggling in order to buy plants. He said, ‘Mommy, these little plants that I managed to buy—you need to take to care of them while I’m gone.’”
The reigning master of the showier stage tricks that the zoo employs is Walter Deichmann, a squat, prickly genius who specializes in creating the illusion that impossibly tight spaces are expansive.2 “If you don’t look hard at this thing, you might think that we have a full square room, but really we have a diagonal wall. It’s been mirrored,” he explains, as he guides me through the bamboo-canopied entrance to JungleWorld. He grows even more animated as we walk past a wall of dark glass. “We have other blue lights on the walls, and basically this side that you can’t see, again there is a mirror making the space feel bigger than it is,” he tells me. The jungle mist comes from a fog machine. The glass in front of the animals is coated in such a way as to nearly eliminate its reflective qualities, and angled so that it doesn’t catch the sun. “This is an example where I set up the glass so it’s not reflecting the rest of the room,” he says as we walk inside. “And then I used that to create a Pepper’s ghost,” which he explains is “an old-fashioned trick where basically you use a half-silvered mirror, and what you can do is you can have one image replaced by another, depending on the light.”
The fog and mirrors that are used to create the illusion of wild nature inside the zoo also serve to banish urban sights and sounds that might filter in from beyond the zoo’s gates. “Before we started this, they would be playing boom boxes out of their windows,” he explains. as we head to the Congo Gorilla Forest. “They may be listening to Jay-Z, or there may be an ambulance going by. You won’t hear it. Only the gorillas.” On cue, a large gorilla climbs up a tree and grabs bunches of leaves. “And now it’s gonna eat the leaves!” Deichmann exclaims, as the afternoon sunshine slants through the mist above one of his waterfalls. “And they’re all on that side,” he continues, pointing to the busy road across the street from the zoo. “That’s where all of our nastier noises were coming from.”
One of my favorite things to do in the afternoons is to watch the giraffes parade through their enclosure. Standing in the pale autumn light, they knock at the branches with their chins and then with their stubby furred horns. After a few minutes of work, their patience is generally rewarded by an audible snap, at which point they angle their graceful necks and use their long supple tongues to strip the branches of foliage. Watching giraffes eat leaves is the closest I have ever come to a vision of heaven on earth in the Anthropocene epoch: herds of giraffes, drifting slowly through the artificial grasslands like leggy blonde models who have been fed a month’s supply of Xanax while local girls in blue jeans park themselves on the surrounding benches and gawk.
Dana Caton, a young assistant zookeeper in a gray hooded sweatshirt, lets me spend some time inside the Giraffe House with Jeannie, who is two; Jay, who is seven; their mother, Sicari; and their grandmother, Clara. Actually, these are not the giraffe’s true names. According to the terms of a bequest by the family that supports the animals, all female giraffes are named Margaret and all males are named James, in honor of their benefactors, James and Margaret Carter. “But we can’t just say Margaret and have that be the name of five giraffes,” Dana explains. The giraffes come in from their pasture every afternoon at 3:30, two hours before the zoo closes. “Giraffes are space cadets,” Dana tells me, before mimicking a conversation between two giraffes: “‘Oh, how’s it going?’” she says, and then answers, “‘I don’t know where I was, either.’”
One by one, the giraffes float into the Carter Giraffe House, visibly exhaling into the cold Bronx air and angling their heads so they can pass through the twelve-foot-high doorway into their spacious home with thirty-foot-high ceilings and warm stalls lined with hay. Last is Clara, the matriarch of the group at thirty-three, which may well make her the world’s oldest living giraffe.
Dana does her best to enrich the lives of the giraffes under her care, giving them brush to eat and toys to play with. Too much stimulation throws the giraffes off. The key is to balance chronic understimulation with the introduction of anything potentially enriching that giraffes might find upsetting or odd, which, it turns out, includes almost everything. “You can’t change it up too much, because they get squeamish and they space out,” Dana tells me. Last week, she adds, when the zebras kicked a blue ball over the fence into the giraffe enclosure, the giraffes refused to come out of the Giraffe House for the rest of the week. Deprive giraffes of necessary stimulation and they develop a distinctive behavioral syndrome that Dana calls “neurotic tongue.” If you go to a zoo and see giraffes licking the walls, it means that they are not well cared for.
At the zoo’s outdoor cafeteria, individual food items are advertised with the faces of animals whose habitats have been endangered by the mass consumption of junk food: the ring-tailed lemur advertises the specific kinds of wide-eyed insanity incarnated in the Madagascar Swurve, a slushy drink that reminds me of the cold cherry-flavored syrup I used to suck from soggy white paper cups of Italian ices in the summertime. A skewer of marshmallows costs $2.50. One more dollar and you get two graham crackers from a crinkly supermarket package along with three squares of a Hershey’s bar that is approximately the size of an elephant’s footprint. Then you take the skewers and hold them over open flames to make s’mores.
Near the fire pits, a fat mom is yelling at her kid for wasting food. “You never, never, never waste food! Never!” she instructs, in a scary tone of voice that is guaranteed to echo in the head of her future young diabetic. The Hasidic parents behind her are engaged in an odd-looking ballet, wheeling rickshaw-like contraptions that can carry three or four kids at a time. Their older children walk alongside the rickshaws in a parade of unseasonable black clothing that provides irrefutable evidence of the success of a communal experiment in rebuilding a human population that was systematically shot, gassed, and burned alive by their fellow humans. Below a footbridge, two slender gazelles butt heads, as a young boy standing alongside me unzips himself and sends a slender arc of golden urine into the illusory space of their enclosure.
I spend a month or so during the winter in the zoo library, perusing ancient leather-bound volumes of the New York Zoological Society’s minutes dating back to 1895. I have made a big point of needing to visit the library, and now that I have finally gained access I read more or less randomly in the zoo’s collections, unsure of what exactly I am looking for. After a few weeks of this, I realize that a mustachioed young man is peering out at me from an old oil portrait. Fogged and cracked by time, the subject of the portrait is of no great importance, the librarian assures me.
After some additional research, I discover that the subject of the portrait is Madison Grant. In addition to his work at the zoo, Grant also spearheaded notable campaigns to preserve bison, redwoods, whales, and bald eagles, and to create Glacier and Denali National Parks in Alaska, efforts that led him to be generally credited as one of the fathers of the conservation movement in America. Since Grant appears in the Zoological Society’s records as a controlling presence from the date of its founding in 1895 until his death in 1937, on the eve of the Second World WAr, the placement of his portrait in a restricted space—and apparently nowhere else in the zoo—is puzzling.
Curious, I locate Grant’s first published article, “The Vanishing Moose, and Their Extermination in the Adirondacks,” which ran in The Century Magazinethe year before the New York Zoological Society was founded. “The old order of things has largely passed away,” Grant writes, with a clubman’s mix of doom-laden apprehension and awestruck admiration for the purity of a bygone age, “but we are yet within sight of the primeval state of a savage and beautiful wilderness, and can obtain some idea of what this country once was by the untouched or only partly mutilated corners that remain. The end, however, is near…”
In The Origin and Relationship of the Large Mammals of North America, published in 1904, the year he climbed the Statue of Liberty to look out over New York Harbor with Beebe, Grant began to expand his arguments about endangered animal populations in order to arrive at some more general maxims that might also be applied to humans. While not all North American animals came from the Old World, Grant noted, “the predominating types undoubtedly did.” In order to save as much as possible of the old America, he wrote in a letter to Hornaday, it was necessary to obtain “absolutely pure full blooded stock.” He further emphasized in a letter to another colleague, “It is of the utmost importance to preserve all remnants of the American bison without any cross-breeding.”
The first concrete application of Grant’s theoretical interest to actual human beings came in 1906, with the arrival of an African pygmy named Ota Benga at the Bronx Zoo. Brought to the United States by the American explorer and collector Samuel Verner, who obtained him from local captors in the Congo in exchange for a pound of salt and a bolt of cloth, Ota Benga was “employed” at the zoo in a capacity that involved his being dressed in white trousers and a khaki coat, and presented to the public for viewing. On Sunday, September 16, 40,000 people went to the zoo, and everywhere Ota Benga went that day, theNew York Times reported, crowds pursued him, “howling, jeering, and yelling.” The newspaper reported that “some of them poked him in the ribs, others tripped him up, all laughed at him.” When a group of colored ministers protested against what they viewed as Grant and Hornaday’s degrading treatment of the pygmy, the Times haughtily protested, “It is absurd to make moan over the imagined humiliation and degradation Benga is suffering. The pygmies…are very low in the human scale.” In March 1916, Grant’s pygmy, who had since moved to Lynchburg, Virginia, where he was called Otto Bingo and sent to work in a tobacco factory, went behind a stable and then shot himself in the heart with a borrowed gun.
In that same year, Scribner’s published what was almost immediately hailed at Grant’s masterwork, The Passing of the Great Race, or The Racial Basis of European History. The book was edited by Maxwell Perkins, the legendary editor and friend of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Thomas Wolfe. After reading the manuscript of the book, in which Grant applied twenty years of thinking and writing about animal populations at the Bronx Zoo to human populations, Perkins recommended it to his friend Theodore Roosevelt, claiming that it was a work of great and lasting importance.
“The Nordics are, all over the world, a race of soldiers, sailors, adventurers and explorers, but above all, of rulers, organizers, and aristocrats,” Grant wrote. Mocking the idea that environment, education, and opportunity could alter heredity, Grant expressed his great disgust for Negroes and issued dire warnings about the Jewish immigrants, whose “dwarf stature, peculiar mentality and ruthless concentration on self-interest are being engrafted upon the stock of the nation.” Unchecked immigration of Jews from Eastern Europe, and southern Italians, he warned, had turned New York City into a “cloaca gentium,” producing racial horrors that future anthropologists would find impossible to unravel.
Grant’s solution to such horrors lay in the application of the theories of “scientific management” of wildlife populations he had developed to the germplasm of the United States and other endangered Western countries. Eugenics laws, he explained, could pertain to “an ever widening circle of social discards, beginning always with the criminal, the diseased, and the insane and extending gradually to types which may be called weaklings rather than defectives and perhaps ultimately to worthless race types.” In addition to saving the political and social structures and values that had made America great, banning the mass immigration of undesirables was the only way to save the native wildlife of America from destruction.
Grant promoted his version of applied racism through his own writings, as well as through a spidery network of research programs sponsored by major American foundations and universities. These programs, run by the country’s leading scientists and promoted by some of its most powerful legislators, had a decisive and entirely regrettable influence on the racial attitudes and immigration laws of 1920s and ‘30s America. Grant also served as a primary conduit between American eugenicists and their colleagues in Europe. Having read The Passing of the Great Race in Germany, Adolf Hitler wrote to Grant, proclaiming, “The book is my Bible,” a sentiment that was shared by many of the leading intellectuals and scientists of the Third Reich, who expressed Grant’s vision in ever-more-horrifying forms. The suggestion that any connection exists between Madison Grant’s murderous racial theories and his conservationist achievements would appall any gentle-minded environmentalist of today. Yet the connection is clearly there.
In hopes of obtaining some relief of my awful discovery, I visit with Dr. William Karesh, a bearded balding man who has since left the zoo. He looks like a Buddha gone to seed, and there is clearly something strange about him. A close reading of the transcript of our interview leaves me unable to say which of us is more deeply disturbed by our work here.
Q: “Do you have a rhinoceros here in the hospital?”
Q: “What are you hiding?”
A: “I’ve got a rock in the closet. I forgot about it, hold on” [He opens the door of his closet and shows me a large rock sitting in a pail of water. I later learn it’s for his aquarium.]
I ask him what happens if a rhinoceros gets sick and whether they are given narcotics. Here the vet pauses “Primates respond like we do; they’re very sensitive to narcotics,” he answers, before warming to a subject of interest to us both. “Elephants are sensitive, deer are not. So we could use the same dose to a full-grown elephant that we would give to a small deer.”
“And a rhinoceros?” I wondered.
“They’re very sensitive,” he answers. “You could use a dose for a rhino, a deer wouldn’t even feel it, because deer are so resistant. I could immobilize five bull elephants with what I need to anesthetize one eighty-pound deer.”
I convince Dr. Karesh to let me inspect the shelves of his pharmacy. They contain: cipro; enrofloxacin; cephapirin sodium, for intramammary infusions; Eqvalan, which is used for worming horses; copper sulfate for injured hooves. Every animal that dies at the zoo is autopsied in the postmortem room, which contains racks of slides dating back to the 1930s, along with a flamingo head in a jar and another jar that is filled with pennies. “These are all the coins that people threw in the sea lion pool,” the vet explains. “Then the sea lion died.”
The continuum of care that the zoo provides extends through the field offices and foreign programs of the Wildlife Conservation Society, the zoo’s parent organization, to such faraway countries as Cambodia, where a slight man named Hong Chamnan uses WCS funding to protect the Bengal florican, a rare bird with the oddly two-dimensional appearance of a wrought-iron ornamental duck. Male floricans have black heads and necks, brown bodies, and white feathers; females are buff brown. Although the Khmer Rouge under the leadership of Pol Pot used thousands of the dolphins in Cambodia for target practice and rendered their fat for motorboat oil, they never found a use for Bengal floricans, which were more or less ignored while the murderous dictator and his followers stifled industry and traditional farming and killed somewhere around a fifth of their countrymen in an addled quest to restore Cambodian society to a state that it last enjoyed during the Stone Age—a goal that they blessed with the slogan “Year Zero.”
In 1979, Hong explains in a talk he gives to the WCS staff, Pol Pot and his henchmen were overthrown, and the new Cambodian government started thinking seriously about conservation, in part as a way of attracting aid from Western governments and donors who, though unmoved by the plight of the freshly tortured Cambodian people, were interested in the Bengal florican, which has also proved to be a magnet for bird-watching tourists from England and Japan. Cambodian children were taught through school lessons and puppet shows that it is bad karma to harm or kill a Bengal florican, and locals were paid $30 a nest to protect the birds. The fine for anyone who kills a Bengal florican was set at $400, which in some areas exceeds a year’s wages for an average Cambodian worker.
Soon after the Khmer Rouge took power, Hong tells me, his father was sent to a forced-labor camp, where he died. Hong and his sister were separated from their mother and placed in another camp. No one cared much about the environment. “They just talked about ‘work hard and then eat together,”’ Hong remembers. “The goal was no money, just working only. People cannot have enough food to eat.” Those who strayed from their work groups were sometimes killed with knives and shovels, in order to avoid wasting bullets. “So no time to kill wildlife.”
It was not surprising that many of the survivors of Pol Pot’s terror have little concern for animals. “I had many, many problems with the community,” Hong says. “The poor people go to the market and buy the wine and get drunk. To talk about the conservation, they just laugh and say, ‘What you talking about? What about my children? What about my food?’”
George Schaller is one of the world’s greatest living naturalists, a striking-looking man, equipped for close observation, with large deep-set brown eyes and a prominent nose, long fingers, and strong hands. I meet him in front of the Siberian tiger exhibit on a winter’s day at the zoo. A shock of gray hair matches the color of his gray woolen sweater, and his well-worn khaki pants testify to a life in the field.
There is a deep loneliness about Schaller that suggests both a kinship with solitary animals and a lifelong desire to be far away from human beings. As a child growing up in Nazi Germany, Schaller lived through Hitler’s rise to power. When the war ended, he left Germany for the United States, eventually making his way to Africa, where his taste for patient, closely detailed observations of gorillas and other animals set standards for the human observation of other species.
Preserving tigers is a way of saving something with great aesthetic value, he tells me, as we watch a tiger lying on a rock, soaking up the winter sun. His temperament is less that of a polemicist than of a visual artists who works with materials that happen to be alive. “There is power, grave beauty, everything you could wish for in a work of art,” he explains, “and it moves on its own.” He has slept within a hundred feet of gorillas in the wild on eight occasions, and observed their night nests, and spent enough time with these shy and powerful creatures to provide zookeepers with a benchmark by which they can distinguish between an animal’s natural behaviors and habits it has acquired in captivity.
Schaller’s time spent among the wild inhabitants of the least populated places on the planet is not so much motivated by disgust at the proliferation of humankind as by a search for a suitable home. In Stones of Silence: Journeys in the Himalaya, his most overtly emotional book, he speaks both of the war-torn foothills of Pakistan and of the “visions of a secret home” that draw people to deserts, seas, and mountains—a quest with which he obviously identifies. He carries a little notebook, in which he jots down a few words at a time, to remind him of what he saw each day. At night he writes longhand accounts with hand-drawn maps and sketches in a more permanent notebook that he uses as a basis for both his scientific and his popular writing. When I question him about the deep currents of feeling pulsing beneath the dry detail of his written accounts, he admits that he also keeps a third set of notebooks—his private journals, “in which I bitch about this or that, or say, ‘Hey, this guy is great,’ or ‘What a wonderful experience to watch the tiger hunt,’ or whatever.”
Unlike Madison Grant and other early-twentieth-century naturalists, Schaller is fiercely dedicated to recording the specifics of animal behavior while maintaining the integrity of his own emotional responses. In the process of the close observation that led to his great work The Serengeti Lion, Schaller came to recognize about sixty lions individually by their natural markings; he and his collaborators also marked an additional 156 lions by placing numbered and colored metal cattle tags in one or both of their ears. “Male No. 159, a nomad on a temporary territory,” he noted, “had 2 to 16 roaring episodes per day with an average of 6.5; Male No. 134, a nomad in the process of establishing a territory, averaged 29 episodes.” He also charted episodes of meowing, growling, coughing, snarling, and hissing. “One lion rubs another by approaching from the front, side, or back and touching cheeks gently in passing, or by first languorously rubbing its forehead, then face and neck, against the head of the other, their eyes often closed,” he observed. He also includes indelible episodes of mating and killing that would do credit to the Greeks, including scenes of female lions eating the viscera of their offspring. “I can intellectually understand a male lion taking over a pride and killing the cubs,” he tells me, pulling a sour face at a detail that other naturalists might glory in. “All right. I cannot comprehend what goes on in his mind,” he admits, adding, “Even less can I comprehend when I see a mother eating her cub that the male has just killed”
Schaller’s distanced observation of animals in the wild is a powerful and balanced corrective to the deep misanthropy of the zoo’s founders. Yet zoos today can pay only lip service to Schaller’s methods. Tiny wildlife parks can support just a small numbers of animals engaged in a greatly restricted number of interactions with one another and with an environment that has been shorn of both life-affirming and life-threatening elements. The fantasy that today’s zoos engender is clearly more benign than that of the early-twentieth-century racists, and yet it is not entirely dissimilar. Employing the familiar techniques of Saturday-morning cartoons, zoos use anthropomorphic logic and illusion to maintain the link between a love of animals and the desire to escape the evils that men inflict on both animals and their fellow human beings. Zoos promise us a refuge from the horrors engraved in the hearts of men and born of the conditional nature of our existence—which are therefore permanent and ineradicable. Zoos are a distinguishing and representative feature of a world of cages and enclosures inhabited by men and animals alike.
Sitting outside on a zoo bench one day, I paged through a book by a man named Heini Hediger, whose particular area of interest is the species of crime native to zoos. There are two kinds of visitors to zoos, he explains. The first come out of a healthy interest in animals, and for the purposes of relaxation and recreation; “the latter however have a perverted outlook or criminal tendencies,” which they express by picking flowers, disturbing the animals, climbing over barriers, ignoring notices forbidding feeding, and so on. There are also drunkards and “the mentally and physically sick (such as epileptics),” who endanger the entire operation of the zoo. “For this reason they should not be allowed inside,” he explains, citing an incident in the Zurich Zoo on July 10, 1951, in which a drunken youth fell into the polar-bear pool and then put on an impromptu gymnastic performance, as well as another incident at the same zoo, in 1957, in which a “mongol boy” entered a cage occupied by chimpanzees, with no lasting ill effects on either party.
Hediger’s typology of the criminal types attracted to zoos includes swindlers, who avoid paying entrance money; psychopaths, a category that includes people who want to free particular animals; and sexual perverts, including those who wish to watch animals mate. (Based on my own behavior at the zoo, I belong to all three categories.) There are also people “who are apparently sexually stimulated by the sight of some animal or other, e.g., a long-necked terrapin, and consequently visit it with inordinate frequency,” as well as sadists, who torment an animal, “sometimes torturing it to death by injuring it with some implement, inflicting cuts or wounds with razor blades, splinters of glass, pins of various kinds or by stabbing at it with a walking stick, a sharp piece of wire or similar object,” and suicides, who hope to be impaled on horns or eaten by carnivores. Photographs accompanying Hediger’s text show “stones that were thrown in a single day at the Beavers by undisciplined visitors,” a small selection of knives that were offered to apes along with apples and other treats, and, most appalling of all, a graffitied rhinoceros—a sight that in some weird way might dissolve the carefully constructed and highly illusory barrier between the world outside the zoo’s gates and the world inside, where animals eat better food and receive better medical care than most people do.
That night, I receive a phone call from a man who identifies himself as “Antoine.” It takes me a moment to identify the caller as Antoine Yates, who raised a tiger and an alligator in his apartment in Harlem and had once applied for a job at the Bronx Zoo. His story, an entirely American effort to create his own Eden, was chronicled by the New York Daily News and led me to become interested in zoos. “I’m far from crazy,” he told the paper in 2003. “If they want to label me crazy for loving, then I’m crazy.”
In our first conversation, Antoine told me that his practice of husbanding large predators began when he acquired a lion from an animal dealer called Kraft’s Animal Escapades—”like the cheese.” The lion cost him $3,000 in cash and weighed fifteen pounds, and he transported it back to Harlem in his black Ford Expedition. He had the lion for a year before he got his tiger, Ming, who currently resides at an animal facility called Noah’s Lost Ark, located in Berlin Center, Ohio. “It exceeds the average person’s imagination to do this,” he admitted. “I had a plan.”
His goal now, he says, during a second and much longer phone conversation, is to get his tiger back. Ming is far different from the average tiger and offered Antoine an experience of unconditional love that came to occupy nearly all his waking hours. In addition to reuniting with Ming, he tells me, following a brief pause, he is planning to build a zoo on the Las Vegas Strip, for which he is hoping to get backing from Jermaine Jackson, brother of Michael Jackson, and a former member of Kool & The Gang. After another noticeable hesitation, he agrees to welcome me to Las Vegas and tell me more about his planned zoo.
I arrive in Las Vegas two days later and wait outside the airport, where I receive a series of cell phone calls telling me to look for a white Nissan Altima. In the front seat is a slight, reticent black man in his late thirties who resembles the New York City rap legend Rakim, with a shaved head, a light goatee, and a diamond stud in his right ear. Antoine Yates is dressed in blue jeans, a white shirt, and tan zippered hoodie. He lives in the mountains outside the city, he says, and he doesn’t miss New York one bit. “I didn’t raise that tiger for fame,” he insists. We park at the Stratosphere Casino and get coffee at the Starbucks inside. Antoine grew up with sixty brothers and sisters, he says, most of whom were foster children taken in by his mother, and there were usually ten to twenty children in the house at any one time. “But I’ve always been the quiet one. I didn’t talk to the others,” he explains, in his terse voice. “I used to put them all in a room and make them fight.”
There is a clear difference between the tense and highly observant man sitting in front of me and the cartoonish animal lover I read about who liked to watchGodfather movies with his pet tiger. The latter is a figure from New York City’s tabloid mythology, I realize, while the man I’m now sitting across from lived in an apartment in Harlem with a tiger and an alligator. To live in an enclosed space with dangerous predators would require the ability to control their behavior, predict their reactions, and respond fast. I look at him silently for a few moments, until he notices the change in my demeanor. “I can tell you how many lights there are on the ceiling,” he suddenly says.
“How many people are sitting in this area?” he asks me directly. I guess five.
“There are six people sitting here,” he says proudly. When I ask him how he got along for so long with an alligator, he finally smiles. “I’m a bender,” he answers. “An alligator’s brain is about the size of a dime. There’s no reasoning with them. You have to learn to bend that situation.” Antoine is a person who is clearly used to controlling everything around him, I realize. “I supremely educated myself on levels that the average human being could not even understand,” he tells me, before adding that his life here is much easier than it was in Harlem. “I’m being introduced to new people, like legends, not drug dealers, not killers.”
I am struck by the fact that Antoine Yates paid cash for a lion in a neighborhood where many people lived on food stamps, yet no one who wrote about him found those facts of his biography worthy of notice or explanation. “Me being separated from the world for five years,” he says, referring to his self-imposed exile with only an alligator and a tiger for company, “helped to preserve my livelihood. I could have gotten cut down in the streets. It was for me to educate myself to the next level.” Whatever he was back in Harlem, he is hardly naive; he is crazy in a particular key. “The Bronx Zoo is in the same environment that I raised Ming in,” he protests, when I ask him about the danger that keeping exotic predators might have posed to his neighbors. “It’s right across the street from a residential area. They have hundreds of predatory animals.”
We have dinner together in the diner of the Stratosphere with Antoine’s brother Aaron, who remembers seeing his older sibling in the hallway of their apartment standing in his Chuck Taylors and a pair of cutoffs, holding a chair in his hand and yelling “Sit!” to a tiger. He would do anything for Antoine, he confides. There was a reason why no one ever said a word to the police. “Antoine was a noted artillery man. He was a shooter,” he says proudly. “He cleared the way for all of us to rise.”
It seems safe to say that neither George Schaller nor Antoine Yates is a likely model for the future of man’s relationship to other animals in a world without wild nature. To better understand what the future of the Bronx Zoo might hold, I arrive early one morning at JungleWorld and wait in the humid third-stage-zoo-exhibit air for the city’s mayor, Michael Bloomberg, to arrive. The seal of the City of New York on the podium shows an eagle, the pioneer and the Indian, and the motto Sigillum civitatis novi eboraci, which is the Latin translation of the phrase “Seal of the City of New York.” The echoing waterfall and the smell of monkey shit have the visiting reporters shaking their heads. I kill some time watching the tapir, which is one of my favorite animals here, a small hippolike creature with an elegant half trunk. When I look into the tapir’s eyes I feel like there is a highly intelligent creature that has been rendered mute by its whimsical physiognomy.
At 11:00 a.m., the mayor still hasn’t arrived. The gibbons come out into their cage and begin screaming, then urinate. The face of a gibbon is a mask of depressive angst that suggests the gestalt of the Bay Area punks of the 1980s. They have dark circles beneath their black eyes and a strip of black hair that stands on end just like a mohawk. “Don’t look at them straight on,” a zookeeper instructs one of the mayor’s young aides, who responds, “That’s how I treat the mayor.” Another of the mayor’s young aides is attracting most of the male attention, with a body framed to great advantage by a short black jacket and black knee-high boots that appear to be made of some extremely thin and rare kind of leather, like tapir hide. She ignores a rudely gesticulating gibbon the way she would ignore any punk kid with a mohawk.
More people pack into the room, and the mist and humidity soon become unbearable. Excited by the crowd, the gibbon exposes its privates and then turns around to show its ass as the young politicos snap pictures with their BlackBerrys. At 11:30, a murmur runs through the crowd, “The mayor is here!” A parade of notables files in and flanks the mayoral podium. Cultural Affairs commissioner Kate Levin is a tall handsome woman who looks like death. Robert Walsh, commissioner for small business, looks like a young aide from the Nelson Rockefeller Administration. Parks commissioner Adrian Benepe is a WASP’s idea of a dashing Latin lover. The commissioners exchange pointed glances, wondering who is to blame for scheduling the mayor’s press conference at a zoo.
A burly double-wide guard, graying and crew-cut, takes up position for the mayor’s entrance, looking like a living remnant of Caesar’s conquest of Gaul. Then the mayor walks in, in a gray suit, white shirt, and baby-blue tie, with an American flag pin in his lapel, representing the height of human evolution at the fading dawn of a new millennium. Smile lines crease the skin of his face without disrupting the Mr. Magoo expression he wears wherever he goes, to assure the people that he is as baffled by his great good fortune as they are. Bloomberg looks a little like a tapir himself, especially around his eyes, which are intelligent yet also trapped inside something he can’t escape, namely the feeling of self-satisfaction that comes from being smarter and richer than everyone else in nearly every room he enters. He put computer terminals bearing his name on the desk of every hotshot arbitrager in the universe, who why is he here? I am struck by the mayor’s fussy manners—a feminine indulgence that powerful men sometimes allow themselves. As he talks about firefighters who put their lives on the line, the gibbons start furiously shaking the branches, annoyed at being upstaged.
After a few minutes spacing out at the podium, the mayor suddenly comes to. He praises the zoo and “all the other cultural institutions” while the reporters gape in awe at a nearby gibbon, which shoots up a tree and takes a spectacular leap like he’s been shot from a cannon, grabs a branch, and swings behind the mayor’s head, while peeing audibly and fulsomely into midair.
When the press conference is over the mayor walks over to the railing of the exhibit, takes a grape from the hand of one of his aides, and tosses it to the gibbon, in what is either a sign of respect or an attempt to buy off a heretofore unknown but potentially troublesome constituency. I corner the mayor near the gibbons and tell him that I am writing an article about the zoo. “They say that if you write a letter to the Bronx Zoo and to Santa Claus, it will get there,” he tells me. “I don’t know if that’s true, but it’s a nice story.” There is something low-key and unassuming about his manner that suggests a long-established habit of lowering the emotional temperature around him. “I saw you toss a grape to that gibbon,” I say. “What did you get out of that exchange?” After a moment, the mayor says, “Maybe it’s a little bit of understanding just how wonderful nature is, or God, depending on how you want to think we got here,” he offers, a rough translation being that he is used to humoring morons.
“There’s a little zoo up in Westchester I used to take my kids to,” he adds, warming up to the subject of zoos after a companionable moment of silence, which he appears to find reassuring. “A petting zoo, where they could play with the animals and that sort of thing. Both had a great love for animals, and do to this day,” he muses, adding, “One’s a professional horseback rider.” He offers a few more bromides about the diversity of nature, which is not unlike the diversity of New York City, from which I am left to conclude that he sees the city as a zoo whose residents rich and poor alike should be safely contained. As a child, the mayor went to Boy Scout camp, which cost either $15 or $25 a week, he tells me. He pauses briefly as he attempts to remember the precise figure, which either way represents a real amount of money to him, a fact that puzzles me for a moment until I realize this is probably how he became so rich.
When I ask him about his love for tropical island vacations, he responds with a benign look, suggesting that my petty provocations are no more of a threat to him than the gibbon to which he just tossed a grape. In the end, everyone wants a grape from the mayor’s hand. “You know, I’ve taken up golf,” he offers.
“That’s nature?”I ask him.
“Well, yeah,” he replies, with a disarming lack of hesitation or calculation. “You see bobcats in the south. You see turkeys all over. You do see a lot of nature, certainly a lot of snakes,” he explains. “And chipmunks and squirrels and hawks and that sort of thing. So, yeah.” He pauses again to weigh the question of nature, and what he likes about it. “Is it the same thing as if you go out into the West where there are wild horses and caribou?” he asks out loud. “There are a lot of different kinds of nature. If you live on the seashore, you know, you can see a lot. Look at the seashells that are washed up, or you can look at the birds, or look at the fish.”
“And when you see these things, you feel what?” I prod him.
“Well, certainly something beautiful and interesting,” he answers.
I am curious why he is here, a question that is answered a few weeks later during my morning subway ride, when I learn the following information from the Daily News: “As many as 130 staffers at the Bronx Zoo and New York Aquarium could be laid off because of pending city and state budget cuts…” According to the New York Post, “Deer, bats, porcupines, foxes, lemurs, caimans and antelopes will be pink-slipped as part of the 114-year-old zoo’s effort to cope with a $15 million budget shortfall.” My friend Ray Oladapo-Johnson is laid off. A bunch of other zoo workers are let go, too. But that’s an announcement for another day. So I ask the mayor the only question I have left.
“If you could have maybe not a whole day but maybe ten minutes, with any animal of your choice in the zoo, which one would you choose?”
“I can’t,” he says flatly. “Some animals would be upset if I didn’t pick ‘em.” Then he reconsiders his answer. “I have always been interested in reptiles,” he answers, and then his face lights up with a smile. He is feeling suddenly and unexpectedly loquacious. “Tropical fish I always had,” he says. “You know, we have dogs. I was going to say animals with personality, although it’s hard to say most snakes have personalities. But you know, monkeys and wolves and dogs.” He is thinking back to a moment in time that he can’t quite remember, and then it clicks. “The zoo in Central Park,” he says brightly. “When I used to go there when my kids were young, it was in terrible shape.”
“The monkeys would bang their heads against the bars,” I remember. “It was scary.”
“And now it’s part of the Wildlife Conservation Society,” the mayor answers, in his sane and balanced way, from which even the smallest notes of sorrow or regret are absent. “They’ve done a great job. And every once in a while, my girlfriend and I, you know, if you’re in for the weekend, and it’s cold or rainy out, it’s a really good time to take a walk in the park.”
1. A bibliography that Osborn published of his own work listed 904 publications, many of which were written by other people.
2. His experience includes designing the interior of a nuclear-powered destroyer for the U.S. Navy and the living quarters of Skylab.