We went to two zoos over the weekend. Both are legacies from the best part of 100 years ago of communities creating exotic educational assets. Both are well into a shift away from mere collections of animals for your gawking pleasure to having a something of a greater purpose. At Watertown, NY, in the middle of town in the center of the park on the hill, you will find the New York State Living Museum. At Syracuse NY, in the middle of town in the center of the park on the hill, you will find the Rosamond Gifford Zoo. At Watertown, you find the animals of New York state and you have a sense from all the building hat there is lots of expansion to provide more space for bears, deer, lynx as well as reptiles and amphibians, rattlers rattling at you through plexiglass. Thank God for plexiglass. It is focused and educational and I will never camp in upstate New York again. At Syracuse, you get to see the animals of the world: mountain side clinging goats from Afghanistan, Indian elephants, middle range apes from South America. There is a difference in scale as well. Syracuse is about 5 times the size of Watertown and maybe less than a fifth the size of the Toronto Zoo.
The elephants bothered me but they exemplifiy the transition that a zoo like the one in Syracuse faces. Oddly, an elephant pacing in a laregly concrete space bugs me more than a lynx pacing in a cage with trees and grass. But its because you think about it, isn't it - many of the elephants have been there for over 20 years and there is likely no other place for elderly pachyderms, there is no money to expand the facilities, there may be no reason to extend the life of the herd into a next generation from a zoological point of view. I may be wrong on each of these points but that is what it looked like. Syracuse is clearly working on the well being of the elephants. It also has a very frank timeline about its history and one thing that span of decades tells you that turning a zoo around takes a lot of time in addition to money. Some apparently do not make it as the gift shop indicated that memberships from the Utica zoo were no longer being honoured as that facility had been removed from a certification list of some sort.
Syracuse is looking like it has a fighting chance. It has moved into an expanded area with well laid out walkways and green space and is using that area to provide larger and rarer animals with access to that space. The tigers are a good example. The Toronto zoo's collection included Sumatran tigars from Indonesia. In Syracuse, the tigers are Russian, from the coast facing the northern Sea of Japan.
Zoos also portray the change that has occurred in wealth and giving. The Maine children's writer Robert McClosky, who wrote in the middle of the 1900s, in one of his early books writes about a poor kid nicknamed Lentil who kicks around the streets of a mid-western US town and finds himself in a celebration of the return of a prominent citizen retiring after a life of service. Half the town is named after this citizen as, frankly, he paid for half the town. The story itself is a little drummer boy tale as in the end Lentil plays his harmonica for the round, happy benefactor and all is well. That story almost makes no sense anymore as that same town today would either be gone or would be populated with a community of much more dispersed wealth through the combination of some socialism and and a much more diversified economy. Many more people would have disposible income surplus to their needs. But it would not be seemingly free money like the money of the man in Lentil.
The zoos of the early 1900s were paid for by the prominent as well as through public campaigns but perhaps not well enough at the outset as other demands were made on the trust funds, stock crashes intervened and likely generations just passed. Like the elephant, the function of that sort of wealth may have changed. Another key factor is, of course, secularization and individual reward worship. Many old time capitalists told themselves something of a story about charitable giving - it was their duty. It was also civic republicanism. The gifting was mandatory because the words read from the pulpit said so and it was adding to the greater good. And it was believed and it was done and then, over time, it was not so well believed and it was no so well done and all of a sudden there are more interesting things to do on the weekend with all our cash. All of a sudden, the folk who could be benefactors pretty much have become us.
So we have, on one hand, elephants and a few apes who are maybe not well served and, on the other, focused active preservation of species which may not exist elsewhere soon, like the Russian tiger. Zoos are on the move and many may pull out of the demanding curve like Watertown and Syracuse seem to be. Both worth going to, both worth reading up on before you go so you know what to expect.