I'm a freelance writer/photographer living in the East Village neighborhood of New York City.
Published March 4th 2010
What famous New York cultural institution began in 1859 with donations from fellow New Yorkers and has since been twice redesigned? If you guessed the Central Park Zoo, you're absolutely correct.
By 1864, the ad-hoc zoo, which was not a part of Olmsted and Vaux's original design for Central Park, received a charter from the State of New York to become the second zoo in the United States. Original animals on display included a bear and several swans, but by 1904, that collection grew to include larger animals, such as elephants. Today's Central Park Zoo is home to thousands of animals including endangered species like rare snow leopards, lemurs, red pandas, and a newly born baby Nubian goat.
Central Park Zoo is comprised of three main exhibits: tropic, temperate, and arctic, all arranged in distinctly separate sanctuaries around the popular sea lion pool. The snow leopards have their own section in an exhibit that was installed in 2009.
The arctic section includes polar bears, penguins, and harbor seals, each with multiple viewing locations (underwater, rock level, and above). A visit is made even more enjoyable if you catch the action during feeding times. Animals typically perform a number of tricks for the public while zookeepers check their progress and overall health.
Snow monkeys, red pandas, turtles, and a variety of birds make their home in the temperate exhibit, which mimics a marshy landscape. Excerpts from famous poems by William Shakespeare and Walt Whitman are displayed throughout the area, which can be strolled at a leisurely pace.
One of the zoo's most delightful attractions is its tropical rainforest. Overgrown foliage drapes around patrons as lemurs, exotic birds, parrots, butterflies, lizards, snakes, and frogs roam freely about in a fully enclosed, humid-filled tropical oasis. And don't forget the poison dart frogs! Age-appropriate signs help parents explain the facts, while magnified images of worker ants on a monitor delight curious eyes via real-time video.
Younger children will also enjoy the adjacent Tisch Children's Zoo where they can get up-close-and-personal with a variety of docile sheep, alpacas, pot-bellied pigs, rabbits, peacocks, and goats (including a newborn that arrived in January 2010!). This section also provides plenty of opportunities for outdoor play.
If feeding the animals left you feeling hungry, stop by the zoo's Dancing Crane Café for a freshly prepared salad, sandwich, or snack. There are plenty of healthy selections to chose from, including beverages and whole fruits. Visitors are also permitted to "brown bag it" and plenty of seating and restrooms are provided for your enjoyment.
Drop by on a cold day and take in the zoo virtually by yourself. Wintertime crowds are typically light, animals are more active, and you can pay tribute to the late author and recluse, J. D. Salinger, whose semi-autobiographical character Holden Caulfield sought refuge in Central Park Zoo in his famous novel Catcher in the Rye.