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.) 

That first year, girls and boys could even turn red by becoming a red panda at the hands of talented make-up artists. Astor Court was filled with games and activities for children.  Each year, face painters were kept busy turning excited kids into those zebras, tigers, and cheetahs, while musicians, storytellers and dancers from a variety of cultures and genres entertained parents and the rest of the crowds throughout the Zoo.  During 1988’s Zoo Mask Weekend, Sabar Ak Ru Afriq Dance Theater honored the Zoo’s big cats with a special performance.[3]

Mask event at the Bronx Zoo, 1983. WCS Photo Collection No. 55032-A-1.

One weekend stands out from the rest. “Panda Mask Weekend” took place on Saturday, September 12 and Sunday, September 13, 1987.  Ling Ling and Yong Yong, two giant pandas from China, had been visiting the Bronx Zoo since April and would be leaving in October.  The Zoo was decorated throughout in “Chinese red.”  In keeping with the Zoo Mask Weekend’s tradition of celebrating both wildlife and the variety of cultures throughout the world, Panda Mask Weekend featured groups of “traditional and modern entertainers of Chinese origin” performing “lion dances, ribbon dances, folk dances and acrobatics.” [4]  Children, of course, could have their faces painted in black and white, just like Ling Ling and Yong Yong. 

The Wildlife Conservation Society’s Communications team worked hard all year long on a multitude of Zoo Celebrations, with the goal to “provide creative wildlife education and entertainment to thousands of families.”[5]  The WCS Library and Archives contains thousands of photographic negatives of these events, from Elephant Weekend and Bronx Day, to visits from various costume characters, politicians and celebrities.  Unfortunately, there is no face-painter on staff, so you’ll have to do your own make-up.

[1] Annual Report of the New York Zoological Society 1985 – 1986.  New York Zoological Society, 1986.  Pg 49.
[2] Annual Report of the New York Zoological Society 1983 – 1984.  New York Zoological Society, 1984. Pg 46.
[3] Annual Report of the New York Zoological Society 1988 – 1989.  New York Zoological Society, 1989. Pg 56.
[4] Press Release, New York Zoological Society, 1987.
[5] Annual Report of the New York Zoological Society 1983 – 1983.  New York Zoological Society, 1983.  Pg 49.

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