Trip Report #5: An approach to the wild life

This time as an outdoor experience I headed to the Central Park Zoo. It is very interesting to think that a zoo is considered a museum, considering that the ‘collection’ consists on living beings. However, after my visit it became more clear how similar is actually a zoo to a regular museum and how the institution is working to preserve and take care of this particular kind of exhibition.


The zoo is located at the southeast area of Central Park and it is a mixture of open areas and some buildings, depending on the specific habitat conditions required by each animal. The whole complex is arranged in a quadrangle around a central garden that hosts the sea lion pool. The other main areas are Tropic Zone, Temperate Territory and Penguins and Seabirds. Instead of cages, the zoo has more naturalistic exhibits and even dioramas, which reminds of the Natural History Museum but with real animals inside. The latter caused me a weird feeling about seeing animals in an evidently fake, small painted environment. But the more naturalistic approach is actually pretty successful in providing a close approach for people to the animals. Particularly, the Tropic Zone room is an immersive experience where people share the same space with a variety of birds and some mammals living in a vegetated environment. By using different levels, visitors can even approach to the birds living in highest zones. Another successful environment is the one for the Grizzly Bear, which seems to have a big size for a (not so active) bear and allows people to see it from different angles and perspectives. The sea lion is has also an interesting environment, as it is in the center of the complex and seems excited every time people approach. The penguins and sea birds and some specific animals in the Tropic zone are all in dioramas with very limited space, which is particularly sad to see. However, the Penguins Diorama has some interesting design elements, like the fact that you can see them both in land and under the water, and also a structure in the border of the display that allows people to sit and children to stand in a higher position to see these animals in action.



It feels weird to talk about a collection of animals, but actually after my visit is makes quite a lot of sense. According to my research, the idea of a zoo started with the ‘menageries’ during the 18th Century, which were collections of captive animals from aristocratic families for their personal pleasure and curiosity. Pretty much like the idea of the Cabinet of Wonders. However, it is interesting to see that Zoos have evolved to be institutions not only concerned about displaying these animals but also about their preservation. Even if they keep captive animals for their display, a big part of the goal of this zoo seems to be approaching people to the animals in order to actually care about them and the preservation of different species. That is very evident in the displays of the grizzly bear and the snow leopard, where the exhibit contains captions with information about the plans to preserve these species and even advice for people on how to behave in areas of the country inhabited by these animals.
The institution that manages the Zoo is Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), which also manages four other New York City wildlife parks: Bronx Zoo, New York Aquarium, Prospect Park Zoo and Queens Zoo.



People who attend to this museum are mostly families with children. Many of them are probably visiting the Zoo as a part of their weekend tour around the park. For this reason the zoo feels educative and playful.
There are some games scattered around the open space that try to create a sort of storytelling involving some animals, such as a fragment of a story or poem by some plants, a couple of animal bones scattered around with a specific caption, or animal footprints carved on the rocks. The approach is not so well developed but it seems interesting enough to be explored a bit more, as a different way to make people feel closer to the ‘wild life’.
According to their website, the museum has a couple of ‘Experiences’ for their visitors and community on specific dates throughout the year. An interesting one is #ZooQuests, a scavenger hunt to collect stamps about the different animals found in stations by the exhibit of specific species. Other programs with catchy names include Breakfast with the Bears, Pajama Party at the Zoo or Little Zoo Vets. There are also seasonal camps and teen internships for the really active young visitors.



The website helps to promote all these programs, events and activities as well as providing information for the daily visit. There is also information for the different area in the zoo. An improvement to provide even deeper information would be to add a catalog of the specific animals that you can see at the zoo, and provide links to research even further. The website is intended for the average basic visitor so there’s not much depth in information. In the top bar there are links to WCS’s website, as well as the other Zoos managed by the institution.


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