It is the largest metropolitan zoo in the United States. It is one of the largest in the whole world. It dates back to the 1890’s and it was heaven for a kid who loved animals. As opposed to the Central Park Zoo, which unfortunately didn’t have the space or the money to do much besides the usual stick the poor animal in a cage and have people gawk at it for hours, it had land – over 250 acres in the Bronx, and it took advantage of every square foot. There you could see animals in their natural environment, or at least as close as you could get to it in New York City. The park was divided into areas that denoted the natural landscape of the countries the animals came from; the African Veldt, the Amazon Rain Forest, the Great Plains. Due to great planning and some real hard work you could look over an expanse of land and if you used your imagination (and for a kid you didn’t need to use much) you could see Africa itself. There in the distance a pride of lions rested in the afternoon sun, while seemingly right near them a heard of antelope grazed and drank from a clear pool. What of course you didn’t see was the huge moat that had been built that separated the two species. Using spatial optics the designers were able to give you the feel of the real thing, without having to witness what would actually happen if these two groups were as close as they looked. The antelope must have been clued into the plan as they showed no signs of anxiety at being so close to their natural predator. The zoologists even took into account that a lioness with a running start would be able to jump that moat, and then what a show there would be! So they strategically placed huge boulders here and there so there was no one spot a lion could get the running start it needed to make a jump like that. Genius.
We didn’t go as often as we did to the Central Park Zoo because of the distance but when we did it was a forty minute ride on the D Train one stop short of Fordham Road where Don and I would both go to college. When you approached the entrance from Boston Road there was (and I hope still is) a huge placard shaped like Africa with illustrations of natives, wildlife and lush forest. I can easily see it now, it evoked such excitement for me as a kid. Over the years, they continued to add attractions, like the World of Darkness where you could watch bats as they swooped to and fro over a fake river, and peer into red it enclosures to catch a glimpse of some nocturnal creature that hopefully didn’t know it was living in the Bronx.
There are two stories that stand out in my mind about the Bronx Zoo. As the second one was a surreal and unique experience that Les and I shared with our best friends (you out there?) and happened years later as an adult, I will leave that for another blog.
The one I want to relate took place on a sunny winter day when again it was suggested that Dad and I do something together. Going to the Bronx Zoo during “off” season was always a favorite thing of mine as you pretty much had the place to yourself. It was one of those times where things happen that you question: was it planned just for us? Or did we just stumble upon something quite bizarre?
Dad and I, bundled against the cold were going in and out of the many buildings that housed various animals, and at one point when we left one, we naturally walked on the path leading to the next building. Except we weren’t alone on this path. A few yards away was an Ostrich. Granted it was a small one, probably a baby or at least an adolescent. Now that normally wouldn’t be a big deal in a zoo, except this Ostrich wasn’t behind any kind of fence, barrier, or enclosure of any kind. It was just walking on the path, just like we were, only it was heading for us.
Now I think I have related that our Dad wasn’t the most comfortable guy around anything wild, especially animals so he reached out and grabbed my arm, and in classic New York style said something like:
I of course being a kid was totally excited. This was so cool. The Ostrich was just there outside just like we were, walking the same path.
“Are they supposed to be out like that?” I asked.
Dad once again the voice of clarity said:
“ I don’t think so”
Looking back on it, I loved the fact that he said ‘I don’t think so” as opposed to “Hell No! What the Fuck is going on here??”
We stood watching the Ostrich for a few moments as it walked calmly towards us. But when it broke into a trot (and boy can they trot!), Dad quickly grabbed me and we ran in the opposite direction. So here we were, being chased by a baby Ostrich in the Bronx Zoo. Dad never let go of me, and I heard him muttering under his breadth…the usual and poetic:
“what the hell?….what the hell?….Jesus…what the hell?”
Even though those guys can trot with the best of them, two frightened New Yorkers can out run anything on the planet. We soon took a turn into an enclosure and watched as the quite beautiful creature continued on the path past us, now in a full run. Lord knows where it was going. Lord knows where it had come from or how it got out of its cage or whatever, to happen to greet us on the path.
See, I told you going “off season” has its benefits. There was absolutely no one around (sound familiar out there??). So here we are resting, trying to catch our breath leaning against some concrete barrier thingy, and Dad is like:
“We have to tell someone about that before we leave”…again simple and obvious but the truth. Lord I loved that man.
But we weren’t done yet. I happen to turn around and see we are standing in this kind of concrete arena, inside it mind you, where you could look out and see the signs for the exhibit. But the signs were facing the other way, like we were in the exhibit itself. What was going on here today? I thought to myself. I mentioned it to Dad, who said:
“What do you mean we are inside where the animals should be?”
I didn’t answer but kept looking about and saw big plastic colored balls, a platter of what looked like old uneaten carrots and leaves…and then I saw the tire. As in a tire hanging from a fake tree, Like the kind of tires they had in exhibits with Gorillas so that people could watch them play with the balls and swing from the tires.
All I had to say was the word “Gorilla”, and once again Dad said:
“What the hell is going on here today??”
And in one of my only really good moments of being an intelligent kid I answered:
“I don’t think we should stay to find out”.
I mean let’s face it – a baby Ostrich was one thing, a full-grown Gorilla was another.
Dad said no more. Again he grabbed my arm, this time like he was going to wrench it off, and we took off running again. I had the bizarre thought: do they do this like once a year as a practical joke on visitors?? If so, they nailed it because at this point we wanted nothing more than to be on the D train heading back to good old Manhattan!
We obviously got out ok, and again saw no one else the entire time we were there. It was almost as if, the thing existed just for us that day, and someone was getting a laugh out of it. It was like an old Burlesque routine, where the bizarre is accepted as the norm. Maybe we just weren’t supposed to be there that day. Or maybe we were exactly where we should have been.
Mom listened patiently a couple of hours later. It was one of the few occasions I saw Dad have a drink when it wasn’t Christmas Eve. She of course, being the voice of reason and intelligence didn’t believe it happened as we told it, though we swore it was true. And there were two of us!! We were there!!
But God Bless Her, she simply said we were mistaken.
And so maybe we were. But I know what I saw when I saw it, and if Dad were standing here beside me, he would tell you he saw the same thing.
But he isn’t. So it’s just my memory.
But it wasn’t to be the only strange visit to the Bronx Zoo in my lifetime. And I have living witnesses to the second one!
I haven’t been back in years, yet it is still one of my favorite places on the globe, for many reasons, not the least of which is the memory of the very real adventure Dad and I had..
It certainly wasn’t the visit we had expected.
But sometimes the best adventures you will ever have are the ones you didn’t plan on having.