The Wildlife Conservation Society will archive and preserve over 12,000 photos from the Bronx Zoo and New York Aquarium.
On November 8, 1899, the Bronx Zoo opened to the public.
It was a production. The city ran special express trains to Fordham, where hundreds of people gathered at the park’s main entrance on Pelham Avenue and Southern Boulevard to hear an address from Henry Fairfield Osborn, the future president of the New York Zoological Society, known today as the Wildlife Conservation Society. Before the gates opened, he told the crowd:
What our museums are doing for art and natural science, this part and its fair botanical companion up the Bronx will do for nature, by bringing its wonders and its beauties within the reach of thousands and millions of all classes who cannot travel or explore.
In 1899, there were 843 animals in the zoo; then, it was a sum worthy of a spectacle. Even before the Zoo’s official opening, The Brooklyn Daily Eagle was touting the park as an institution that would define New York’s global standing. An article from September 4, 1899 boasts:
With 261 acres the Zoological Society has been able to apportion ample space to each department, and this alone will give the Bronx Zoo an unique place among the zoos of the world...The gardens in Berlin, the largest, contain sixty acres, while the far-famed London Zoo has but thirty acres. In Bronx Park the buffalo range alone is almost as large as the latter.
Over the past century, the zoo underwent tremendous changes. Beginning in 1940, the animals were moved from cages to open enclosures, and today the zoo houses around 4,000 animals of over 650 species. This week, the Wildlife Conservation Society has released images of the zoo’s early days and inhabitants—including several species that are now extinct—that make those differences even more palpable.
With the help of a $16,674 grant from the New York State Program for the Conservation and Preservation of Library Research Materials, the WCS will rehouse 12,000 of the over 70,000 glass plate and film negatives in the collection that were otherwise susceptible to damage, according to a press release from the WCS.
The collection, which also comprises images from the New York Aquarium, dates from the zoo’s founding in 1899 through approximately 1930, and demonstrates, the release notes, “how animal care practices and exhibit standards, along with the zoo grounds, have evolved with time.”