E was on spring break last week, so instead of going to campus to read cases and apply for jobs, he did it from the comfort of our living room. There was a vacation pileup in my department at work, so I could only manage to sneak out for a day mid-week. Luckily, that day was the last of the 70-degree early spring days we had, and E and I took advantage of the weather by heading up to the Bronx Zoo. I had never been before, somehow, and I was eager to join the mostly-local crowd (lots of kids in school uniforms with their backpacks and parents) on the unseasonably mild afternoon.
I admit that I was disappointed by the zoo. I think that my high expectations, the fact that it was, actually, really early in the season for zoo-going, and my inability to avoid checking my work email account conspired to dampen the experience. There were several large exhibits closed, and many of the exhibits that were listed as open were mysteriously empty of animals. The infrastructure was pretty run down, and nearly all of the snack stands, sundry shops, and other amenities aside from the main cafe and gift shop were closed. And, in contrast to the Central Park Zoo, which I think has done a wonderful job updating its exhibits while respecting the historic architecture and infrastructure, the old animal houses at the Bronx Zoo were full of tiny, dark, labyrinthine habitats where bored animals paced or slept. Truth be told, we didn’t spend any time in the Congo exhibit, which is lauded as an exemplary zoo exhibit (but there were no animals out, and it was crowded, so we left). And everything smelled awful.
I love visiting zoos and learning about animals that I will probably never see in their natural environs. I know the challenges and criticisms of the institutions, and I think a lot of those issues were visible at Bronx Zoo. Many of today’s [American] zoos are evolutions of a form devised several hundred years ago, one that didn’t really work for the animals or the patrons. If we could divorce the zoo from its original forms, and imagine something totally new with all the knowledge we have of animals, conservation, and user experience today, what would that zoo look like?
It probably wouldn’t look like the Bronx Zoo.