Why We Need to Reform the Central Park Zoo

By Lula Zeid ’21

New York City's Central Park Zoo (Photo Credit: Wikipedia)

If I told you to close your eyes and picture Central Park Zoo, what would come to mind? Perhaps a mosaic of wonder: a child, wide-eyed, tapping on the glass, the affectionate chime of the Delacorte Clock sounding in the distance while talking zebras run on treadmills. The sanctuary in which birthday parties are thrown and the animals dumped in wild Madagascar call home.


In its founding, the zoo kept animals in grimy cages. Unwanted pets and animals, donated from New Yorkers and circuses, were the original inhabitants of these cages. This zoo is a relic of the past, and it ought to be left there.

The Central Park Zoo, along with the Bronx Zoo, Queens Zoo, Prospect Park Zoo, and New York Aquarium, is owned by the Wildlife Conservation Society, which defines its mission as “saving wildlife and wild places worldwide through science, conservation action, education, and inspiring people to value nature.” Central Park Zoo falls short of reaching the Society’s goals in every way.


Consider what it means to have a zoo so close to 5th Avenue and the Upper East Side of Manhattan. The levels of noise that New Yorkers, as well as the animals in the zoo, are exposed to on a daily basis is absurd. A study conducted by New York University reported that nine out of 10 adults experience noise levels beyond what the Environmental Protection Agency deems harmful. They furthered that the city’s 3-1-1 hotline receives more complaints about noise than any other issue. Taking the data compiled from the 3-1-1 hotline, The New Yorker found that 16% of the complaints reported were about construction both before and after hours.


The Auckland Zoo released a report studying the impacts of construction noise on zoo animals. The report affirmed that while animals can become accustomed to the loud noise, they can also develop “learned helplessness,” an underlying cause of depression. It concluded that, generally, noise pollution in cities harmfully affects animals and disrupts their behavior.


Air pollution in New York City has equally disastrous effects on the animals. According to data collected between 2015 and 2017, researchers from the American Lung Association gave Manhattan an F grade due to the number and severity of high ozone days the city experienced. To make matters worse, New York City was ranked as the third most polluted city in the United States in 2019.


Experts note that the dangerous matter that animals inhale over sustained periods can build up in their tissues and damage their organs. With the potential to progress into more serious respiratory infections, animals are more vulnerable to unhealthy air quality than humans, as they are often not equipped to protect themselves. At least now we know why poor Melman needed that inhaler.


Sea lions are a particularly vulnerable group kept in Central Park Zoo. Due to the nature of their open enclosures, once on display, the animals fall victim to health issues, including sunburn, stress, and eye damage. Sea lions are often forced to look directly into the sunlight when begging for fish, and ultraviolet radiation from the sun makes sea lions more susceptible to ocular stress and disease.


Undoubtedly the zoo’s most famous controversy occurred in 1994 when officials noticed that Gus, one of two polar bears on display, was swimming endless laps in his small enclosure. After multiple complaints from the public, the zoo provided a revitalizing program for Gus, which proved ineffective as he was chronically depressed. For a couple of years, he seemed to have recovered, but when his fellow polar bear Ida died in 2011, Gus fell back into depression and rarely swam, often slumping sadly in his enclosure. Central Park Zoo euthanized Gus in 2013.


In the midst of the climate change crisis, it is essential, now more than ever, that we reconsider our relationship with the natural world. Can New York City be a hub of climate advocacy if things like this zoo exist? What do we value more as a society, a questionable cultural staple or the rights of animals whose suffering we are funding? Is this really the type of institution we ought to be supporting in 2020?

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