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