It is small, only about six acres and it is old. It started as a menagerie in the 1860’s, the first official zoo to open in New York City. It was enhanced, and built up in the 1930’s with new buildings and the famous sea lion pool which was considered very advanced for it’s time as the designer actually incorporated the habits of the sea lions into it’s design.It was only the second zoo to be publicly owned in the country, the first of course being in Philadelphia which was founded in 1859 sixteen years before what would become the Central Park Zoo was officially declared open. The buildings still standing today with their elaborate sculptures of limestone and Georgian brick, were marvels of architecture.
It is a city landmark, and rightfully so.
To us as kids growing up in Manhattan it was a peek into another world; one that we wanted desperately to visit. By today’s zoological standards of course it was primitive;the animals were displayed in cages with no real consideration of their needs or comforts;it was built specifically for the city dweller who had never seen a Lion or Zebra before. It would undergo major changes in the 1980’s when they removed all the large mammals to the Bronx Zoo, and concentrated on a whole new concept of animal viewing, way more compassionate and far more logical.
I am glad they changed things for the sake of the animals, and love the new design, but as a kid in the 1960’s it was an amazing place of wonder and discovery. Sure the Lion in front of you, sleeping on a concrete bunk bed suspended with chains from the tiled wall was not doing what he would do in the wild; well maybe he was, they do sleep a lot like all cats, but he wouldn’t do it if he had a choice. But there were the placards placed outside the cage describing the animal’s natural environment and as a kid I would read that and look at the mighty beast in front of me, and he wasn’t sleeping; he was stalking his territory on the African Veldt, proud, secure in his power and truly the king of his realm. Ok granted it took a young kid’s imagination to make that leap from what was in front of me at the time, but that’s how I viewed them each time. And it made me want to go; to travel to Africa and see them as they were meant to be seen. It’s a dream I haven’t attained yet; I used to drag Mom into travel agencies (there used to be dozens of them in NYC) and ask for brochures for travel to the Serengetti. The glossy neatly folded advertisements always had a picture of a safari on the front; a Land Rover with a few people stopped watching a pride of Lions in the near distance. I always saw myself on that vehicle, binoculars at the ready, camera in hand, seeing it in real life. A life so different from the one I lived on West Twelfth Street, bound in by the walls of the apartment; to be on the Veldt with nothing but land for as far as you could see; herds of Zebra, Antelope and Giraffe, the sun beating down on it all, the pride resting in the shade of a Baobab tree. Wow. I still want to go and maybe someday will, because that’s what I saw when I looked at the sleepy Lion in the Central Park Zoo. I knew he could be more than what I was seeing, was indeed more; he just wasn’t getting the chance. As usual with all things animal, I had to be dragged from the place by Mom, I would always wave goodbye and every once in a while, the lion would open a drooping eyelidand make eye contact just for a second before going back to sleep. I would be thrilled and was sure he was giving me a secret message only the two of us would understand….See you on the Veldt it said….and I nodded yes, yes you will someday.