The Winter Zoo

Visiting animals when most humans stay away

Kate Zambreno

Lions at Prospect Park Zoo, 1950–1951. Courtesy Brooklyn Public Library, Center for Brooklyn History

We returned to the zoo during the winter break. The city, or at least our surrounding neighborhoods, appeared emptied out, possibly to extended family or island holidays. My sister had gifted us a membership, and so our entry was free. We had nothing else to do after the toddler woke up from her nap and before the early winter darkness fell. Maybe we were curious to see how the animals were faring, this season, during the changing temperatures.

We entered the zoo from the Children’s Corner, which led us directly to the sea lion pool. Each time we visited that winter, we just missed the last feeding of the day, where zoo workers, usually women, feed their charges from buckets of fish, encouraging them to turn flips or clap large sleek flippers to their human hands, to the applause of the crowd. The zoo’s website for the sea lion feeding hours had not been updated since March 2020, as if our ensuing isolation that began that month had frozen the schedule, and by the time we arrived, we were told feeding was just over for the day. Still, we would stick around, peering over the rails that so many children try to climb on top of, and probably have since the zoo was built almost a century ago, watching the creatures swim around and around, in that sleek, undulating way, the typical pattern for pinnipeds in captivity, though they can travel thousands of miles in the wild. On one visit, the only other child who was there found a small inert fish on the pavement, and after a zoo worker gave permission, tossed it into the pool. One of the sea lions swiftly retrieved and gobbled it up, then swam over close to us, almost to the railing, as though it were peering at us with inquisitive eyes set apart in a whiskered face. My youngest, at their eye level in the stroller, kept referring to them as dogs. Although at two, she knows the word “sea lion,” having played with a plastic sea lion figurine in the bath, the same figurine she placed in a state of unusual solitude on my desk while I was working on this report, perhaps having heard me ask her father how he would describe the architectural layout of the zoo. Maybe she cannot match the plastic replica with the immensity of the actual animal.

The sea lions seemed eager to see us. It is possible they felt something was off, because of the disappearing winter crowds, and decreased public feedings, or because of the encroaching darkness during that time of day. These events—the multiple daily feedings, the attention—structured their time, as well as provided stimulation, and the sea lions most likely intuited a loss, when time changed and there was darkness and the human beings disappeared so early, a change that was winter but couldn’t be experienced according to the natural rhythms of such. I read that sea lions often eat more when it gets colder, fortifying themselves with an increased fat intake and the resulting layers of blubber. Perhaps seeing tiny humans gather around them again made them wonder if more food was coming.

I have become fascinated with the ways in which this zoo, like so many others, has been remodeled over the century into what is now known as a children’s zoo. The open-air sea lion pool has remained the focal point of the zoo’s central semi-circular fan-like layout. Online I find an undated, tinted photographic postcard of that same pool, which originally held seals, surrounded by a crowd. Judging by the fact that all the men are wearing hats, it must have been taken before the 1960s. Robert Moses used the Works Progress Administration Funds to build this new zoo in 1935, which then held a bear pit, a lion house, a monkey house, and soon afterwards, elephants, housed in the dome-shaped Animal Lifestyles building. Like the other brick and limestone animal buildings in the zoo, all of them designed by the architect Aymar Embery II, it bears a stone relief from Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book. It now houses, among a variety of tropical and nocturnal birds, monkeys ranging from tiny frowning tamarins to larger and more aggressive baboons. In another online photograph, from a personal archive of childhood photos from the 1960s, a lone baby elephant is hanging around outside the building, on an elevated step, almost as if out in the open air, except for what appears to be two horizontal wires, although it’s possible, as it’s been recently pointed out to me, these are just creases in the photograph, and I’m imagining these signs of the elephant’s captive state. Still there is a barrenness and heartbreaking sense of isolation to this amateur photograph of the brown elephant alone amidst brick and concrete.

One sees the animals through the curious faces of one’s children.

It’s difficult to tell what season it is in the tinted postcard. Everyone is wearing a coat, but the forest behind them, and the grass in the foreground, are lush and green. Perhaps it is that cold period of early spring, or a cold snap in fall before the leaves change. The density of the crowd blocks our view of the pinnipeds that the people are intently watching. They must be just swimming down in the pool, as they do, diving to the only depths they can find in that shallow pool. Within the animal display industry, I read online, sea lions and seals are popular for exhibits, especially seal shows. Among the pinnipeds in captivity, sea lions are becoming even more popular to exhibit than seals. The seals perhaps have more tricks, but the sea lions, on the whole, are more gregarious, in groups of their own and with people.

When we came to the zoo in summer, it was so crowded around the pool that it was difficult to see, and I had to hoist the oldest up. There was an announcer then, near the entrance, with a microphone and a speaker. I wondered whether this was stressful for the sea lions; I had once read, I don’t remember where, that the animals were often stressed by the din of the congested traffic sounds on Flatbush Avenue. I wondered what sea lions, and the other animals, made of the scarcity of visitors during the winter. It must not have been too different from how it was when the zoo had been closed to the public during lockdown. On our winter visits, the zoo workers seemed to be more relaxed than in the summer, freer to be themselves. I found myself observing them, wondering what it was like to take care of the animals, to feed them, in the quiet winter zoo. My children were often noisier than the animals.

The second time we were at the sea lion court during winter break was a late afternoon in January. It had warmed up, and we were unsure how many layers of clothing that we needed. It was a bright day, and the three sea lions were on the rocks, clumped together, an unusual sighting when there wasn’t a show. One of them was resting her chin on the sleek body of another. They were most likely gathered together for warmth. I am calling the sea lion her because of something I was told by a child who was visiting the zoo that day with her mother. The child, who attended the same school as my kindergartener, and was a few grades older, was eager to share her knowledge about the sea lions. She told us the ones at this zoo are females, and the ones at the Bronx Zoo are males. I imagined, when she was telling me this, that a separation happened at one point, because of territorial behavior that was less than optimal for the exhibit crowds. The girl also told us the names of the sea lions we were watching, which I’ve now forgotten. (Later I looked up her claim; actually, male and female sea lions are not separated at the Bronx Zoo.) We all watched the sea lions vocalizing loudly on the rocks. They’re making so much noise, I remarked to this child. Why were they being so loud? She didn’t know either, and seemed like me somewhat disturbed. We stood there for a while staring at the three sea lions, who were staring back at us. Afterward, I read about the communication styles of the sea lion, their barking and honking. The sea lions appeared to be roaring at us, but not, it seemed, in an unfriendly way. Although I’ve also read the roar is usually a request to be left alone.

Polar bears in Prospect Park Zoo, 1937–1953. Courtesy Brooklyn Public Library, Center for Brooklyn History

While standing there I looked over at the bronze sculpture at the base of the twin staircase, near the Flatbush Avenue entrance, Lioness and her Cubs, created in 1899 by the French animalier Victor Peters. I always look for it whenever we are at the sea lions exhibit. However—this is most likely a trick of my mind—I swear that when my eldest was a toddler, that it was in a different location around the pool. I’m not sure exactly where. I have a memory of my daughter at four playing there with her friend of the same age, during a late winter, climbing the sculpture and sliding down, with hardened filthy snow that hadn’t yet melted surrounding it. Apparently, I read later, Robert Moses had moved the statue inside the zoo from the park to prevent children from doing just that. This must have been one of the first trips to the zoo the first winter after everything shut down, when we stayed outside of the main buildings, a habit that has persisted, I’m not sure why. It wasn’t only because of fear of contagion, but most likely because it felt depressing and claustrophobic, being inside the zoo buildings, watching the animals from behind glass, and it felt better, somehow, to be out in the open air. It was easier for me to look at the statue of the tiny cubs nursing on their mother, and think about how time and space had collapsed, than to pay attention to the honking creatures in front of us.

I visited the zoo regularly when my now six-year-old was between two and three, around the age my youngest is now, and it feels almost uncanny to keep returning to the same place. Maybe like most people at the zoo, my gaze takes in the animals and their captivity, and then turns towards the other spectators. I see myself among the others, looking back at them, which makes it impossible for me to truly relax. While thinking through this I look through various digitized photographs of the zoo online at the Brooklyn Public Library. There is one photo from the 1950s of children watching a lioness in a cage, in the same pose as the serene lioness in Victor Peters’ statue. The zoo’s literature likes to historicize the evolution of styles and attitudes of confinement over the century, to show the progress. In 1890 an informal menagerie opened in the park’s Long Meadow. It had a bear pit, complete with three bears. An entry from the 1896 annual report lists the livestock owned by the parks department: fifty-nine sheep, twenty-eight deer, one buffalo, one cow, three bears, one puma, two raccoons, ten rabbits, one dog, one eagle, eight pea fowls, eight doves, thirty-nine Chinese geese, fifteen Egyptian geese, seven Muscovy ducks, four common ducks, and three turkeys, often housed in cramped cages, or grazing behind wire fences. A colorized photograph shows Victorian-era buggies and woman in bustle dresses and men in formal wear peering into wooden cages. We can’t see the animals, as the focus is on the humans. More animals were eventually acquired to from other zoos and private collections, including zebras, elephants, and baboons. In 1900, the zoo both opened an aviary and, according to the July 8 Brooklyn Daily Eagle, added one Columbia black-tailed deer, one pronghorn antelope, five swift foxes, two gray wolves, six woodchucks, two red foxes, four American flamingos, one dusky horned owl, and two coral snakes. The menagerie transformed into a zoo with the purchase of seventy animals from the remaining collection of the circus mogul Frank Bostock, whose live animal show at Dreamland, the old amusement park at Coney Island, was decimated by a fire in 1911. Soon after, Bostock died of a stroke. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle spearheaded a donation campaign that allowed anyone who purchased an animal to rename it. The paper published a daily list urging Brooklyn residents to contribute toward the $2000 that needed to be raised before November 11, 1914, the day the animals were to arrive in Prospect Park.

It’s important to at least partially disassociate when at the zoo, to avoid thinking of the lives of animals who have lived their entire lives in captivity.

More naturalistic habitats without the obvious appearance of bars began to replace cages and pits, modeled after the Hagenbeck Zoo in Hamburg, Germany. One might argue that these less restrictive environments were put in place more to appease the public and less to eliminate the inhumane conditions. The animals were still captive and not able to roam freely. A few decades ago, the polar bears would have been kept in an enclosure where an administration building now stands, behind the sea lion pool. There they hung out on the rocks that resemble large boulders or icebergs. One evening in 1987, three boys broke into the zoo after hours, planning to swim in the moat in the polar bear enclosure. One of the boys, eleven years old, was mauled to death by the two polar bears, 33-year-old Teddy and 32-year-old Lucy, weighing 1400 and 900 pounds, respectively, who had been sleeping in their faux caves when the presence of the boys woke them up. When the police arrived, they shot and killed the bears. This gruesome incident prompted the phasing out of the large animals in the zoo, leaving only the gregarious sea lions and the territorial baboons, who are kept behind glass inside the Animal Lifestyles building.

It’s important, I feel, to at least partially disassociate when at the zoo, and to avoid thinking of the lives of animals who have lived their entire lives in captivity. One sees the animals through the curious faces of one’s children. We lingered like that, in front of the sea lion pool, with our friends, and decided to walk together as a group, along the path, as it grew darker out, the older children running ahead, the toddler toddling after them. That afternoon, as on our previous visit, the peacocks, usually the only animals running about freely, albeit with their legs tagged, were nowhere to be seen. I imagined the cold must have driven the birds inside, to heated shelters. I watched a brilliantly colored bird, a quail or pheasant, in the glassed-in enclosure, run around in circles in a corner, as if stuck there. I stared as it repeated this tiny circuit, around and around, around and around, a pacing within captivity known as stereotypic behavior. We stopped to look at the Pallas’s cat, who is prowling around and around. The Pallas’s cat, used to snowy mountain terrains, is happy, the placard tells us, in freezing temperatures. Or at least their ancestors were, since the animals have been in zoos in the U.S. for decades, as part of captive breeding programs. The Pallas’s cat looks like a big furry house cat. The children are disappointed that the other animals that are happy in the winter, the little red panda, the pair of sea otters, which were there during the previous visit, have already gone inside in preparation for the zoo’s closure. Right after Christmas we watched the sea otters chase each other underneath the ice, but then stand on their legs, near the gate to their indoor habitat, as if hoping to be fed or let in for the night. On that first winter zoo visit, on the way to the barn to feed the sheep and llamas, we stopped to watch the blue heron that often flits in the garden near the farm animals. The heron’s curious figure delicately rested standing nearly motionless on top of the iced-over pond. When the ice had completely melted, we spotted it again only now it was soaring high up overhead, free to fly away or linger as it pleased.

Kate Zambreno is the author of nine books, including The Light Room, a meditation on art and care, forthcoming from Riverhead in July. Tone, a collaborative work of criticism with Sofia Samatar, is forthcoming from Columbia University Press. She is at work on a series about zoos as well as a book of fiction, Realisms.
Originally published:
May 8, 2023


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