The Children’s Zoo in a Changing World

This post was written by Helen Vivas, who was the WCS Library and Archives’ Photo Collection Management Intern for Fall 2023Helen is completing her Bachelor’s of Arts, in history and film studies, from CUNY Queens College.

Children’s Zoo, July 31, 1941. WCS Photo Collection 18841.

When the Children’s Zoo opened to the public in 1941, the War in Europe was already disrupting people’s lives in the U.S. As the country entered World War II at year’s end everyone had to make sacrifices, including education and recreation outside of schools. An area at the Bronx Zoo specifically for children created a friendly and welcoming environment during a time when many aspects in the lives of kids were changing. For a time, fuel rationing limited school trips. But according to the Annual Report of 1941: “wartime restrictions on classes visiting the Zoo were removed early in the season and classes began to come in considerable numbers — we undertook to give free guided tours to classes from New York City schools. In all, 113 school tours were scheduled — far more than we could take care of.” (29) Children needed public spaces for social and educational activity, a parallel seen during the Bronx Zoo’s 2020 reopening amid the coronavirus pandemic. The environment of the Bronx Zoo has always catered to curious onlookers learning from animal exhibits. These historic moments saw the zoo leaning into its role as a child-friendly educational resource.

Children’s Zoo, July 31, 1941. WCS Photo Collection 18847.

Through my work as the intern at the WCS Library and Archives, I have come to understand how the Bronx Zoo recognizes public need and interest over much of the past 125 years. Although children today have information and technology at their fingertips, they still have a strong need for experiences in the real world. In a place like New York City where concrete and skyscrapers overtake our environment, for some the Bronx Zoo is the only place to interact with wildlife and different environments. A zoo is more than a place where animals live, it teaches empathy and appreciation for a world beyond our own. Those attributes can be especially helpful during confusing times.

Children’s Zoo reopening on July 22, 2020. Julie Larsen © WCS
Visitors and Children in Masks with Eric Carle Puppets and Actors, April 8, 2021. Julie Larsen © WCS

Resonating Humanity with the WCS Archives

Visitors at Bronx Zoo’s Sea Lion Pool and Baird Court, 1941. WCS Photo Collection 17741.

This post was written by Tayla Evans, who was the WCS Library and Archives’ Photo Collection Management Intern for Summer 2023. Tayla is currently working on her Bachelor’s of Fine Arts, with a specialization in Illustration, from Pratt University.

During the early 20th century, vanguards of the era were inciting technological revolutions, confronting flu epidemics, and lounging by the Bronx Zoo’s Sea Lion Pool – just like we would today.

One thing I’ve noticed is that when recalling people from previous times, we often skew our perception of them by imagining them as being an entirely different demeanor from us. You might imagine women in the early 1900s leading their bustles across the street as suited businessmen hold austere conversation. People who had lived so long ago that their entire bearing might seem alien to our modern manners. But time doesn’t change the fact that people have always been people. My experience as a Photo Management Intern at the WCS Library and Archives has illuminated me to this phenomenon more than ever. 

My involvement with the Archives granted me the opportunity to digitize photo negatives that offer a history of the Bronx Zoo since its conception, allowing me to witness the visual development of the zoo as it cemented itself as both a cultural institution and a landmark in conservation – and an essential part of the community. As I examined negatives leading up from the early to late 1900s, I think of the events that were happening in the periphery of these snapshots of life – some of which are mirrored in our time, like the Influenza Epidemic of 1918. Furthermore, despite similarly tragic events such as the World Wars, there lies an apparent care and joy that visitors found within the zoo and its non-human inhabitants.

I’ve realized, as I went through the Archives, that photographs offer a breadth of life – an exhibit of how the different experiences of humankind can be united by a shared familiarity with the Bronx Zoo throughout time. Photos are a way of injecting life and humanity into a past we see as wholly distant from ourselves; that’s why photos are so important – we garner what we know from what has been left behind because people cared to preserve them.

Illustration of adults and children

Getting the opportunity to view the historical photo negatives in the archives has given me a new lens in viewing a history of the Bronx community that isn’t as well known. As the WCS Archives continue to grow and expand in diversity and voices, I urge everyone to empower themselves through the unknown and eccentric history that exists in their local institutions; they might seem more familiar than you expect!

Fuertes Painting Conservation Treatment Success

We are pleased to share the results of a Conservation Treatment Grant we received from the Greater Hudson Heritage Network.  With this funding, we have been able to secure conservation treatment for a painting in our collection that holds historical, aesthetic, and cultural significance: Whooping Cranes on their Breeding Grounds in Saskatchewan, done in 1922 by the New York ornithologist and artist Louis Agassiz Fuertes and purchased from the artist in 1923 by the Wildlife Conservation Society for its artwork collection.  Conservator Nadia Ghannam performed repairs, cleaning, and stabilization that has helped restore this painting’s vibrancy and ensure its longevity.

Louis Agassiz Fuertes. Whooping Crane, on the Breeding Grounds in Saskatchewan, 1922. Oil on canvas. 60 x 75 inches.

A lifelong New York resident who was considered the foremost American ornithological painter of his lifetime, Louis Agassiz Fuertes illustrated several of the era’s most important bird books, and he produced dozens of murals and oil paintings featuring birds in glorious detail.  Fuertes’ particular significance, both to art history and ornithological history, was his approach to observing his subjects—an approach he honed alongside early WCS leaders.  Like his associate, the Bronx Zoo’s first Curator of Birds, William Beebe, Fuertes was an early proponent of studying animals in their natural habitats.  In this, they broke with researchers and artists before them, who had studied wildlife only from stuffed museum specimens.  Instead, Fuertes and Beebe each traveled extensively to observe living birds. Among Fuertes’ expeditions, he visited Canada, where he performed intensive studies of the cranes he depicts so vividly in this painting.  His first-hand observations of birds living in their natural habitats have been credited for the accuracy and vitality he brought to his ornithological paintings and showcased in these elegant and vivacious cranes. It is likewise significant that whooping cranes were among the birds central to one of the nascent wildlife conservation movement’s first public campaigns: to discourage the era’s destructive trend of using bird plumage to decorate women’s hats.  Paintings like Fuertes’s illustrated the birds’ beauty in their natural settings and sought to inspire care for these threatened animals.

Conservator Nadia Ghannam (R) and Art Preparator (Steven Day) preparing to work on the painting.
Conservator Nadia Ghannam (R) and Art Preparator (Steven Day) preparing to work on the painting.

As described elsewhere on this blog, early WCS leaders saw art as a vital means of stimulating public interest in animals.  Whooping cranes were of particular concern, and the Bronx Zoo’s first director feared that they would be “the next North American species to be totally exterminated.” Thankfully, that prediction has not borne out.  While whooping cranes are still endangered, their numbers have risen since the early twentieth century, in part due to advocacy measures and captive breeding programs aided by many including WCS. 

The NYSCA/GHHN Conservation Grant Treatment Program is made possible with public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts, with support of the Office of the Governor and the New York State Legislature.  The Robert David Lion Gardiner Foundation has provided additional dedicated support for conservation treatment projects on Long Island and New York City.

50 Years of the World of Birds

The generations of zoogoers visiting the World of Birds will either insure the survival of wildlife through interest and concern, or its destruction through negligence and exploitation.”

World of Birds pamphlet, 1972
Crowds at the World of Birds in 1972, the year of its opening. WCS 35mm Slide Collection

The World of Birds opened on June 16, 1972.  The gift of Lila Acheson Wallace, for whom the building is named, it was widely considered among the most innovative zoo exhibits upon its opening, and it continues to be a Bronx Zoo icon. 

1906 Bronx Zoo Bird House postcard. WCS Archives Collection 2016.

The first Bronx Zoo Bird House opened in 1905 under the direction of the zoo’s first Curator of Birds, William Beebe. Its design was an attempt to deliver on early WCS leaders’ intentions to create a zoo that would be a “decided advance beyond anything thus far accomplished.” Although many of the Bird House’s features—including live plants and multi-species exhibits—were considered radical at the time of its opening, the evolution in zoo design over the course of the twentieth century led to WCS’s view by the late 1950s that the Bird House was outdated and sparked plans for the modern exhibit that would become the World of Birds. 

William Conway with tawny frogmouth in the World of Birds, 1972. WCS Photo Collection No. 45094.

William Conway developed the concept for the World of Birds.  At that time NYZS General Director, Bronx Zoo Director, and Ornithology Curator, Conway also oversaw the project’s planning, development, and construction.

World of Birds Preliminary Curatorial Specifications, by William Conway, 1968. WCS Archives Collection 1028.

Composed of a series of large interconnected cylinders with skylight roofs, and sweeping exterior ramps, the World of Birds was planned for the exhibition of 500 birds representing more than 200 species and subspecies in 25 separate exhibit areas.  The building’s lead architect, Morris Ketchum Jr., said of the design in the New York Times, “We didn’t worry about how the place looks from the outside. Conway’s very much against spending effort and money on exteriors except where it does something for the animals, but don’t think it’s any the worse for that.  What we did was simply build the exhibits, or habitats, as well as we could, then put a protective skin around them. It’s striking just as it is.”

Bird’s-eye view of the World of Birds, 1979. WCS 35mm Slide Collection.

The architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable was among the many who were indeed struck by the building’s Brutalist design. She admiringly described its form in a New York Times review as an “asparagus-like bunch of cut-off cylinders, ellipses and free forms joined by ramps.”  The World of Birds, Huxtable wrote, “is surefire drama and painless education. And fun.”  She welcomed the new building as a sign of an always evolving institution, declaring that “There are no flies on New York’s Bronx Zoo.  It entertains, instructs and proselytizes, and it uses the tool of architecture to do so with singular skill.”

Visitors in the World of Birds around 1972. WCS 35mm Slide Collection.

Aside from the building’s exterior, several features contributed to building’s ingenuity. Although the World of Birds was often noted for its barrierless displays, these had been used before, in St. Louis and Philadelphia for instance. They had been used as well in the 1964 Bronx Zoo Aquatic Birds House, also led by Conway, which served as a testing ground for concepts that would make World of Birds so innovative.  What was new about the World of Birds was the development of immersive displays, like the African Jungle and South American Rain Forest exhibits, that placed visitors inside the exhibits.  The displays were enhanced by advanced features and exhibit technologies. Among these were a 120-foot-long, 50-foot-high fiberglass cliff (based on a mold of the New Jersey Palisades); a 40-foot waterfall; natural plants and live trees as well as fiberglass and cork trees; multi-level displays; built-in watering systems; artificial rainstorms including mists, sounds, and strobe lights; backgrounds utilizing new airbrushing techniques; and film displays to supplement graphics.

1972 World of Birds pamphlet with drawings by famed illustrator Tomi Ungerer. Ungerer’s graphics were also featured throughout the building’s signage. WCS Archives Collection 2016.

The World of Birds was designed to “awaken concern for the natural world,” and from the start, the building’s signage included messaging about threats to birds and their habitats.  An introductory pamphlet about the building included an appeal to visitors:  “As you gaze on these beautiful creatures, remember that their wild world is disappearing—that your children’s children may never have the possibility of observing such creatures.  The generations of zoogoers visiting the World of Birds will either insure the survival of wildlife through interest and concern, or its destruction through negligence and exploitation.” 

World of Birds exhibit on the threats of the pet parrot trade, circa 1990s. WCS 35mm Slide Collection.

Indeed, WCS believed strongly in the building’s ability to inspire visitors to take conservation actions, explaining elsewhere that “An enormous effort has been made to carry into the city some suggestion of the beauty of the natural world in which birds dwell outside.  It seems likely that the vast majority of visitors to the World of Birds and their children after them will have little opportunity to see wild animals in nature.  Nevertheless, it will be this growing municipal population whose feeling toward wildlife, reflected in their votes, will ultimately shape the future of national parks and wildlife refuges and the opportunities future generations will have to see and enjoy wildlife.  That is what the World of Birds is all about.” 

Pink pigeons are among the World of Birds’ conservation breeding successes. For more on the Bronx Zoo’s pink pigeon history, see this post on WCS’s Wild View photo blog.

South Bronx Park

This post was written by Shelda Zajmi. A Master of Information candidate at Rutgers University, Shelda worked during Fall 2021-Spring 2022 on the WCS Archives’ Photo Preservation Project funded by a New York State Library Conservation/Preservation of Library Materials Grant.

The Bronx Zoo was founded by the New York Zoological Society with the purpose of serving the public while promoting education and conservation. As laid out in the Society’s founding charter, the City of New York supported this endeavor by providing 250 acres of city park lands as well as annual funds for the Zoological Park’s maintenance, including upkeep of buildings and care for animals. The New York Zoological Society paid for animals, research, exploration, and conservation.

The choice to locate the Bronx Zoo in South Bronx Park was purposeful, and in the Society’s first Annual Report, one reason listed was its proximity to the New York Botanical Garden, which would be beneficial to both institutions. Another reason was the richness of the existing landscape. The southern portion of Bronx Park was described by the Bronx Zoo’s first director William Hornaday as having a “wonderful combination of hill and hollow, with high ridge and deep valley, of stream and pond, rolling meadow, rocky ledge and virgin forest of the finest description, all of which, by a happy combination of circumstances, have been preserved through all these years.” These features made the land adaptable to the needs of animal enclosures. Accessibility, to be reached by many from all classes and places, was another big consideration.

1802 land deed agreement between William Hemsley and Patrick Shay. The agreement transfers a portion of the land on which the Bronx Zoo is now located. WCS Photo Collection No. 41387.

Prior to New York City’s ownership, much of the South Bronx Park land had been held by private landowners, including the ones who signed the 1802 deed above—an image I found during my work preserving WCS’s historical photo negative collection. Before these private landowners, however, the coastal Lenape known as the Unami lived in the Bronx River area. Their sister Lenape village, Quinnahung, was on the other side of the River near Clason Point. Indigenous Peoples were mindful of the River, viewing it as a watershed. The British viewed the River as a boundary between the groups and saw its potential for profit. This made the Bronx River, which was once clean enough to supply New York’s drinking water, highly polluted. To this day, the River still contains pollution.

Bronx River after a 1974 clean up project. WCS Photo Collection No. 45556.

Today, the Bronx River Alliance leads efforts to protect the Bronx River, and the Wildlife Conservation Society is a Bronx River Alliance partner.  The Bronx Zoo also has a history of Bronx River clean-up days, such as the one that resulted in the photo I found above.  According to the New York Zoological Society 1971 Annual Report, such clean-up days–which originally began as a project under the Community Affairs Officer’s coordination–were attended by Zoo personnel and local service and ecology groups, and set out to lay the groundwork for a more extensive Bronx River project in the future.

For more on the early history of the Bronx River, and what non-Indigenous people can learn from Indigenous connections to the environment and respect for wildlife, I recommend this Indigenous History of the Bronx River, from the Bronx River Alliance.  

Zoo Mask Weekend at the Bronx Zoo

Mask event at the Bronx Zoo, 1983. WCS Photo Collection No. 55028-2.

This post was written by Matt Perelli, MA, CRA. An emerging professional archivist, Matt worked during Fall 2021-Spring 2022 on the WCS Archives’ Photo Preservation Project funded by a New York State Library Conservation/Preservation of Library Materials Grant.

Forty years ago, the public eagerly crowded into the Bronx Zoo’s Astor Court to mask up for wildlife.  “Thousands [of visitors] arriving as kids left as zebras, tigers, and cheetahs.”[1]  From 1983 until 1988, the Zoo Mask Weekend was one of many Zoo Celebrations “well known around the country and eagerly anticipated by the public and media of metropolitan New York.”[2]  The Zoo Mask Weekend celebrated wildlife and the world’s diversity of cultures, and allowed children to let loose their inner wild animal (not that they ever need an excuse.) 

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Remembering Dr. William Conway

We were saddened by the death last week of William Conway, who began his career at WCS as an assistant ornithology curator in 1956 and retired as its president in 1999. Dr. Conway is undoubtedly among the most pivotal figures in WCS’s history and in modern zoo and aquarium history. We will be reflecting on his legacy in the coming months, but for now, the WCS Archives is remembering the grit and the grace Dr. Conway brought to saving wildlife and wild places.

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Happy Pride Month! 🏳️‍🌈

This June we celebrate the multifaceted nature of all life around us. As the archival record shows, science is constantly evolving.  As we continue learning about the diversity of animal, plant, and human relationships and identities, the stronger and more resilient our scientific communities, and thus, our world, will become.

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The Bronx Zoo Shuttle [Instagram]

The Zoo Shuttle at the Bronx Zoo has been helping visitors get around and see the zoo since 1940. It started as a way to “to insure the happiness and comfort of the visitor” by allowing everyone by allowing everyone, of all abilities, to experience the 265-acre park. In the 1960s the Education Department wrote lectures that were given on the shuttle, and it became referred to as the “Tiger Train.” This photo shows the Zoo Shuttle making its way through Fountain Circle in the 1950s.

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Imagination During WCS Archives Film Internship

Since January, I have been interning at the WCS Library & Archives as part of the Moving Image Archiving and Preservation program at NYU. I worked with the WCS film collection inventory to prepare records for online access.

As with most things this last year, it was a somewhat strange experience, since I worked remotely despite living just a few miles from the Bronx Zoo. But working virtually allowed me to use part of my brain that doesn’t get much attention: my imagination. I had to imagine what “Gorilla dental treatment” or “Penguin House opening” might look like. Doing so allowed me to deduce additional information that wasn’t captured in the original inventory: who was involved, where it took place, whether other copies might exist. I could imagine what past inventories were aiming to record, like how items related to one another and what certain shorthand from the 1940s meant.

I also had to imagine the audience for these films. With my background in film history, I don’t know the first thing about zoology or wildlife conservation. But with a little imagination I could put myself in the shoes of one of these researchers. If I were a conservationist, what might I want to know about “The Curious Crabs of Singapore” or “Gardens Under the Sea”?

I hope that these imaginative skills stick around in our in-person work, for myself and the next person who has the pleasure of working on this collection. Even for a field that is concerned with evidence, authority, and documentation, thinking imaginatively can bring us new discoveries.

This post is by Sarah Hartzell, a Master’s student in NYU’s Moving Image Archiving and Preservation program.