Sea lions, penguins, and polar bears, oh my!
I’m an animal lover. Sometimes I think I missed my calling as a vet, some kind of modern-day Dr. Doolittle where I live amongst the feathered, the furry, and the scaled in some kind of telepathic love-in where human and animal exist as a happy red-blooded One. Maybe in a next life.
I’m reminded of this missed calling when I go to places like the Central Park Zoo, which I visited this Saturday. It was rainy and chilly, and despite that it was Saturday at noon, the tourists and their broods weren’t out in hordes. As it got colder and wetter, they disappeared back into their warm hotel suites and Serendipity 3’s or FAO Schwartz’s, leaving me and the penguins our blessed togetherness free of sticky faces and saliva-streaked hands griming up the windows.
The Central Park Zoo is one of the city’s best-kept secrets. Where else for $8 (yes, $8!!) can you wander a beautiful Neo-Georgian site housing three climates (temperate, arctic, and rainforest), the Tisch Children’s Zoo (where you can feed sheep and goats for $.50 a handful of kibble; hand sanitizer mounted on the same wall as the kibble dispensers), the Sea Lion pool (with sea lion feedings thrice daily; who doesn’t love watching the big blubbery dears honk and bark for their fish?) and the polar bears.
There are quiet corners of the Zoo, like a leaf-covered pond at a cul-de-sac on the grounds, home to some turtles, frogs, and tiny fish, where I am transported back to my New England childhood. Around the sea lion pool, there are benches strewn about small landscaped displays of trees, shrubs, and flowers. On a quiet afternoon, I imagine these little pockets of repose would make for a lovely place to sit and simply ponder the clouds in the sky.
Then there are the parts of the zoo where reality smacks you in the face. The penguin display smells. As soon as you approach the double doors leading to the penguin house, a gamey, thick odor hints at what might be behind the doors. It smacks you in the face as soon as you walk in. But after a few minutes of watching the charming little fellows, and all is forgotten. The penguins appear to be genuinely curious about humans. They will swim right up to the glass and wave their flippers or shake their tail feathers (literally!) at you. They leap out of the water and do flips and get more aerial and acrobatic the more people ooh and ahh.
The puffins are not as interesting. One male seemed to be in a threat display loop, opening his feathers and throwing water against the glass while shunting back and forth across the small pool. The females watched, boredom etched across their beaks, from the rocks. Stick to the penguins for entertainment value. They’re even cuter during their feeding displays, at 10:30am and 2:30pm daily.
Two exhibits you can not afford to miss are in the rainforest zone. My glasses fogged up as soon as I entered this exhibit, which is kept at about 78 degrees. After regaining my sight, I walked around the central aviary (watch out for falling poop; these birds are up close and personal) and thrilled to discover the best exhibit in the zoo. The fruit bats. As I watched these swarming rodents, I could not help but think how much their social behavior resembled that of certain people I know.
The bats are kept in a dark exhibit. There’s a zoo guy who stands by the glass with an infrared flashlight to illuminate the creatures’ bizarre habits. I peppered him with questions. “Why are they swarming like that?” The bats are in constant motion (unless they’re hanging upside down sleeping or grooming). And it’s not just any motion. It’s chaotic and jumbled, a wurly mess of motion.
“That’s their social behavior. In the wild, they are constantly in motion, perpetually in search of food. This behavior remains even in captivity.” Hmmm.
Then he shines the light on the “cave” ceiling. The bats are hanging off the ceiling in giant bat-pods. “They huddle together for warmth. In one of those groups, there are probably about thirty bats.” Give me your tired, your huddled masses… I am fascinated. They remind me of the groups of undead I see wandering around Pacha. I watch them swarming in perpetual motion on the hunt or podded together, running their behavioral loops, operating at the level of genetic destiny, a program passed down for generations.
And then there’s the bats.
There’s something very New York about the Central Park Zoo in the rain. The rain lends an extra layer of beauty to the whole thing, a melancholic embrace. You, the human, free of captivity if for just an afternoon are braving the elements and somehow one step more wild for communing with animals in inclement weather.
However, the spell is broken when exiting the zoo at Central Park South and 59th St. Here horses tethered to gaudy white carriages wait in the rain for dopey tourists to come along and think they are getting romantic New York in one of these rides. Romantic New York is where you find it, and it’s thicker and more powerful at the Central Park Zoo than it is on one of those sad carriage rides where the poor horses can’t even chew their oats because the driver won’t remove the bit. In both cases, the animals are in captivity, but at the zoo, conservation is the name of the game. The animals are cared for by compassionate and dedicated keepers, educational programs are at the core of the zoo’s mission, and the displays are naturalistic. The carriage horses appear sad and skittish by comparison, and everyone who lives in New York knows the carriage horse issue is a controversial one.