The Bronx Zoo: A History
In the midst of the country’s foremost urban jungle, an oasis of plants and wildlife collected from around the world has thrived for over 100 years and counting. The Bronx Zoo is one of the city’s crown jewels, attracting over 2 million visitors to the northernmost borough every year. In a city best known for gridlock and nonstop action, the zoo has been a haven of intrigue and discovery for several generations of New Yorkers.
The Bronx Zoo’s story began in 1895 as the brainchild of the newly formed New York Zoological Society (now known as the Wildlife Conservation Society). The society came together with the explicit aim of building a top-quality zoo to complement the city’s celebrated museums and parks. Work soon began on identifying an appropriate site with enough space but not too far for city residents to visit.
By 1898, the newly consolidated City of New York allotted a plot of land in the Bronx to become a wildlife preserve and the following year the New York Zoological Park opened at the Fordham Road site. It was an immediate sensation, attracting thousands of curious guests to see the 843 animals on display. Today, that number has grown to over 4,000 representatives of more than 650 different species, still capturing imaginations of visitors young and old.
The zoo was among the first to consider exhibiting animals outside of restrictive cages, opening their African Plains showcase in 1941, a new kind of exhibit where animals freely intermingled and explored a recreation of the serengeti. This groundbreaking exposition not only offered a thrilling naturalistic display but imparted visitors with an understanding of the importance of preserving animals’ native habitats. The zoo’s Wild Asia did the same thing in an Eastern setting starting in 1977, with 77 acres of roaming space viewable by elevated monorail.
Over the years, the zoo has been home to some truly rare specimens. It’s only one of two zoos in the United States to have exhibited the thylacine, a now-extinct doglike marsupial from Tasmania. Their last thylacine died in 1919, and the species’ last known individual died in captivity in 1936.
Perhaps the zoo’s best known species have been their snow leopards, first exhibited in 1903. Over 70 of the endangered white cats have been bred at the Bronx Zoo, making it their foremost sanctuary in the United States. They’re far from the only rare species to call the zoo home, however, with Chinese Alligators, Kihansi Spray Toads, and Yellow-Headed Box Turtles all calling the Bronx their birthplace over the years.
The successful 20th century effort to revive the American Bison has much to owe to the zoo as well. The zoo’s original director William T. Hornaday cofounded the American Bison Society in 1905, and set about breeding the animal in the Bronx Zoo’s confines. Two years later, the zoo was able to send 15 bison to a preserve in Oklahoma, where a thriving colony exists to this day.
The zoo boasts some remarkable non-animalian features as well. The famed Rockefeller Fountain on the park’s north side, brought to the United States from Como, Italy by oil baron William Rockefeller, is a designated New York City Landmark, as are the bronze Rainey Memorial Gates decorating the zoo’s north entrance. Architectural enthusiasts will also appreciate the historic beaux-arts buildings of Astor Court, including the Elephant house and the zoo’s main administrative building.
In a city that boasts soaring buildings and cutting edge works of art, there’s no experience quite like the thrill and wonder housed in the 250 acres of the Bronx Zoo. Whether a leisurely visit or a lifetime residency, no time spent in New York City is complete without visiting the city’s wildest residents.