Today, if you want information on an animal, you might turn to the internet, and look it up on Google or Wikipedia. If you want information on the Wildlife Conservation Society, the Bronx Zoo, or one of the other wildlife parks, you might go to their website, read their FAQs, or go to the “contact us” page for email information. In 1965, however, such information was not a just a click away. If you had a school project, or needed animal information for another reason, you might write to the zoo. And if you were Assistant Curator of Birds and Mammals Grace Davall, part of your job would be responding to these inquiries.
Grace Davall first joined the staff of the Bronx Zoo in 1923 as a secretary. She worked for both Curator of Reptiles and Mammals Raymond Ditmars and Curator of Birds (and later General Curator) Lee S. Crandall. After Crandall’s retirement in 1952, Davall became Assistant Curator for Birds and Mammals, a position she held until her retirement in 1970. I recently processed Davall’s records as part of my internship at the WCS Archives. The collection contains a portion of Davall’s public correspondence from 1965, and mostly consists of letters addressed to the “Zoo,” the “curator,” or “sir,” along with Davall’s responses. Here is a selection of Davall’s correspondence, from the typical to the truly “wild”:
One of the most common types of letter the Zoo received came from students who needed information for a school project. Davall would often provide a list of resources the student could purchase from the Zoo, but sometimes she would provide a more substantive response, such as here:
Sometimes children’s questions were more specific:
Children and teenagers weren’t the only ones who wrote to the zoo. Here, an older man prefaces an inquiry on bison with a recollection of a visit to a herd at Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo over 50 years earlier:
Not everyone who wrote the zoo just wanted information about wild animals–some wanted to procure the animals themselves! Requests for price lists or names of animal dealers were refused, often with a gentle admonition that such animals were illegal or did not make good pets.
Sometimes, someone already had an animal, and needed to find out how to feed it–or what to do with it. While today the Bronx Zoo does not accept donations of animals who need new homes (see the FAQ), in 1965 Miss Davall advised a young boy that they could take his guinea pig–but cautioned him not to send it in the mail!
We hope you enjoyed this brief tour through the world of mid-20th-century zoo correspondence! If you have a question for the Zoo, you can contact them here. (You can even send a letter, like in the old days!)
This post is by Helen Schubert Fields, who worked during Fall 2014 with the WCS Archives as an intern processing the records of the Assistant Curator Grace Davall. All items pictured are from that collection: Grace Davall records, 1938-1973. Collection 2069. Wildlife Conservation Society Archives, New York. Any personally identifying information in these letters has been blurred for online display.
was it not Grace Davall who, reluctantly and for the Park’s promotional strategy, allowed herself to be photographed with a boa constrictor wrapped around her upper body?
I’m not sure about the Park’s promotional strategy part, but you’re right — that was Grace Davall. She’s a really interesting figure in WCS history, as you see in this post!
Thank you for this terrific post! What a fascinating look into information access before the advent of modern IT. When I started university in 1989 at Northwestern in Chicago, the student center had a service where you could call the main desk 24 hours a day and ask them any type of question. They would then do their best to find out the answer and call you back!