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Prospect Park, Two by Two - Part Two

Mar 19, 2014 12:00 PM | 0 comments

This is the second part of a two-part blog post on the Prospect Park Zoo, read the first part here.

End radio silence.

"The good ship West Point has been heard from. All fears that the prowling warships of the European combatants had intercepted it and carried off the animals, perhaps to provide amusement for the Kaiser's grandsons or the young Russian Grand Dukes, have been laid to rest" (Brooklyn Daily Eagle, November 7, 1914). A few days later the animals arrived safely but, on the day of the grand parade and exhibition, it rained.

A lot.

Commissioner Ingersoll postponed the opening day until the following Saturday so all of the Brooklynites, who had put so much effort into securing the animals, could greet them. Yet not all was well on Prospect Lane. The Prospect Park Zoo now had nineteen bears confined to a space that should have accommodated six. The keepers were doing their best, using all available space, but the zoo was clearly crowded and undeniably insufficient. One might say the zoo was "bad news bears."

In November, the Brooklyn Citizens Committee was founded. It would morph into the Brooklyn Zoological Association the following month. The main focus of the new organization was to support the zoo and secure funds for a new facility. How they would secure the funds, however, was still very much up for debate. Commissioner Ingersoll proposed a new tax. Others preferred a pledge drive much like the one the Eagle had run. Lions are one thing, zoos are another. The new facility was slated to cost roughly $16,000. 

Prospect Park Menagerie card. 19-?, Brooklyn Collection. Brooklyn Public Library. 

On April 21st, 1916, with the help of Brooklyn's citizens, both average and high-profile, the first of three proposed wings opend to the public. 

Prospect Park Zoo, Brooklyn, N.Y., Postcard, 191-?, Brooklyn Collection, Brooklyn Public Library. 

Watching The Seals At Zoo, Brooklyn, N.Y., Postcard, 191-?, Brooklyn Collection, Brooklyn Public Library. 

The new facility had more room for the animals who currently resided at the zoo and additional space for more exotic animals. Chicken hawks arrived from outer Queens, homeless after their house took an unfortunate tumble. 

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, August 2, 1916.

Battalion C, Second Field Artillery, sent a wildcat and a coyote from the Texas border. Both animals were trapped for the express purposes of sending them to Prospect Park. Not the best way to acquire animals, no doubt, but I'm sure they meant well. 

On October 3rd, 1916, a polar bear moved into 12 Den Row. 

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, October 3, 1916.

"He did not do like a well-seasoned house hunter on moving in, however. He did not run around to see if the gas range was working, if the radiators leaked, an if the wall paper was unmarked. No; he simply yelped and plunged ker-flop into his bathtub" (Brooklyn Daily Eagle). New animals were not the only exciting development in 1916. A surprise letter from Francis Bostock, son of Frank Bostock, showed up at the zoo. Francis was stationed in Salonika and his mother had sent him a clipping from the Eagle detailing a very special birthday party. The party was for the daughter of a former family employee and the party's guest of honor (aside from the birthday girl) was Old Baltimore, one of Frank's lions. Francis sent his regards to all of the animals and expressed a hope that he might one day more to Brooklyn and see them again. 

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, April 20, 1916.

The Eagle reported on all of the new arrivals in great detail as well as, sadly, some unplanned departures.  Two lion cubs were brought to the zoo in October of 1916 after being born at sea to proud papa, Satan.

No, that isn't typo. 

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, October 15, 1916. 

Satan was one of the stars of a wild animal show at the New York Hippodrome. The cubs did not take well to their new surroundings and, after one of the cubs died in early January of 1917, the second cub began to lose its hair and refuse food. A month after its littermate passed, the second cub "died of distemper and grief... at last he turned up his toes and went that place where we are told the lion will lay down with the lamb - if it chooses a corner where the breeze will not carry to the lion the odor of mutton." One of the keepers remarked that "raising lion cubs seems to be as delicate an operation as growing eggplants" (Brooklyn Daily Eagle, February 13, 1917). I would venture that raising cubs is more challenging than growing eggplants. But what do I know?

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, February 13, 1917.

Not all departures were so tragic, nor so permanent. Bismark, a lion, choked on a large piece of meat during one of his feedings. The keeper had already walked away to continue his rounds and, upon his return, he found Bismark weak and losing consciousness. The keeper sprang into action, sticking a garden hose down the lion's throat in hopes that Bismark's reflexes would dislodge the obstruction. Huzzah, it worked! Bismark, I'm sure, took smaller bites from then on. 

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, March 4, 1918.

And what zoo tail (see what I did there?) would be complete without a good jailbreak? Meet Jimmie Coati, a sneaky Central-American cousin of the raccoon. Jimmie committed an unspeakable act and then used his nose to flip the latch on his pen and escape one warm July night. 

Maybe you think from the name "Jimmie" Coati, who most certainly did 'rock the boat' before they got him back in the pen, comes from the olive groves of sunny Italy. He does not; he is Mexican with a heart of a brigand and no soul, is James Coati. He proved it soon after he came to the park by blossoming out as the zoo's only criminal. Conceiving a violent dislike of his wife, he slew the old-lady one day, and since he eliminated her from the scheme of his little world he has lived a life of single blessedness. Finally, the one-eyed brigand was trapped and put back in his pen after his finger-prints had been taken. There is his now, very sour, with a bolt fastened to the catch which defies the nosiest nose that ever grows on coati. (Brooklyn Daily EagleJuly 16, 1916.)

As of 1923, just under a decade after the Eagle worked tirelessly to acquire a portion of the Bostock collection, the same Eagle remarked that the hand-me-down animals were dying and the new houses, all three wings having been completed, were crumbling. The Prospect Park Zoo would go through many more periods of great change over the course of the 20th century. It was taken over by the city in 1935 at the behest of Robert Moses, fell into ruin alongside much of New York in the 1970s and 80s, and was revitalized in the 1990s, as were the rest of the Wildlife Conservation Society's parks.

The Prospect Park Zoo has given millions of New Yorkers the chance to see the natural world up close. However dubious the origins of zoos, there is something irrefutably special about communing with nature.

And something even more special about challenging it to a (soda) drinking contest.

Bearing Up, Brooklyn Daily Eagle, August 12, 1949.

Soldier Boy vs. 4-year-old Victory Gangler. My money is on the bear.