This article will perhaps be your introduction to one of New York’s richest treasures: the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Bronx Zoo, located in Bronx Park in the north central part of the Bronx. The WCS also includes the Central Park Zoo in Manhattan, the New York Aquarium in Coney Island, Brooklyn’s Prospect Park Zoo and the Queens Zoo.
The 718 acre Bronx Park, which includes the Bronx Zoo and the Bronx Botanical Gardens, is located on land originally belonging to Fordham University that was sold to the City of New York in the late 19th Century for $1,000. The purchase came with the condition that the land be used as a zoo and garden to create a buffer zone between the Fordham University campus and the rapidly approaching urban expansion around it. In 1895, New York State chartered the New York Zoological Society, later renamed as Wildlife Conservation Society, for the purpose of founding a zoo.
The Bronx Zoo opened its doors on November 8, 1899 with 843 animals in 22 exhibits. For its centerpiece, Heins & LaFarge designed a series of Beaux-Arts pavilions around a large circular sea lion pool, all of which still exist today, although they have been remodeled and updated many times over the years.
In the mid-1980s, some 90 years after its founding, the Zoo began a major renovation to bring an end to the look and feel of an animal penitentiary and to institute a more humane and sustainable atmosphere by displaying animals in a closer representation of their natural habitat wherever possible. Most of the indoor cages which had iron bars have been replaced with open enclosures where you find yourself in the same space with the animals, separated by moats or with raised walkways for spectators as in the new Madagascar building. In the World of Birds, you again find yourself in the enclosure with the birds, but the spectators are in a darkened area of the room where the birds will not fly. In the Congo Gorilla Forest, the several families of gorillas are housed in large outdoor habitats while the spectators are confined within glass enclosures!
The fate of many wild species around the world has inspired the Society to institute a breeding program for species endangered by hunting, poaching, air and water pollution and habitat loss, and to also concentrate on animals capable of tolerating life in captivity. These priorities have now been adopted by zoos around the world and there is great cooperation in exchanges of breeding stock for genetic diversity and in the sharing of zoo-born animals. As a result of this trend, zoos have become the last bastion against extinction for many species that are almost gone in the wild. Indeed there are species that exist today only in zoos. The Pere David Deer from China is an example of an animal long extinct in the wild that the Bronx Zoo has successfully bred and donated to zoos in China, where they are being reintroduced into the wild. The Wildlife Conservation Society has conservation projects in over 30 countries around the world.
Growing up in the Bronx, very near the Zoo, I have visited it since my earliest elementary school field trips and family outings and took some of my first photographs there. I was known to cut school and sneak off to the Zoo to take pictures.
The animal “portraits” in this article were, for the most part, shot with an eye toward eliminating all man-made objects from the photos to give the appearance of wild nature. Key to this effort was the Leica APO-Telyt-R 280mm f/2.8 lens used on a Leica R9 with DMR digital back, often used with APO-Extender-R 1.4X or APO-Extender-R 2x, resulting in 400mm f/4 and 560mm f/5.6, respectively. With the additional 1.37X cropping factor of the DMR back, the focal lengths become 380mm, 550mm and 765mm. This combination has two distinct advantages for this application. First of all, the tight cropping and the limited depth-of-field serves to eliminate walls, fences, feeders, lamp posts and other evidence of the man-made environment. Additionally, the lens and two extenders make a pretty manageable package that can be carried around for hours on a monopod or tripod, with a small bag for spare batteries, SD cards and several zoom lenses for closer subjects.