Security has been tight this week at the Central Park Zoo, with ticket takers, staff, and guards on the lookout for suspicious packages of cookies, pretzels, hot-dog buns, and pound cake. Observant Jews have till Wednesday to clear their houses of hametz (leavened products) before Passover, and every year many of them take their castoffs to the zoo. Baffled zoo staff note that the snow monkeys are the main beneficiaries of the pre-holiday pig-out, apparently because the polar bear’s glass wall is too high and the sea lions would only be interested if offered gefilte fish. “If a big group comes in carrying bags, admission is going to notice,” says zoo spokesperson Kate McIntyre.
The small, pink-faced snow monkeys (Japanese macaques) may not mind the interruption to their grooming routine and carefully prepared diet of fruits, greens, and nuts, but their caretakers sure do. Standard protocol is to politely ask food-throwers to stop. If they persist, security hovers and asks again (last year, one food-flinger said, “I don’t answer to you; I answer to a higher power”), but they are rarely ejected. “They really don’t know why they shouldn’t do it,” says one zoo volunteer. “They think they’re doing a good deed. I can’t say they like it when I tell them to stop. My answer to them is to take it to a shelter.” Other volunteers aren’t so tolerant. “If we see them do it, we should either frisk them for food or throw them out,” insists one.
But Yula Kapetanakos, an assistant curator, notes that the observant visitors don’t throw anything that bad. The real risk for the animals in eating too much people food is that they will get fat and lazy. Often the monkeys become so sated after their pre-Passover feast that they won’t go inside later for dinner.
Rabbi Moshe Elefant of Orthodox Union says there’s no religious imperative to give the food to animals. Still, “our tradition is not to waste food,” he says. “If we could give it to some animals to eat, that’s the best.” And since the run-up to Passover is so busy, Elefant says, the zoo’s just convenient. It’s more common for Orthodox families to go to city zoos in the middle four days of Passover, when the kids are out of school. Kapetanakos says the main things thrown by the big crowds then are bananas and matzo, that Passover staple. But Rabbi Elefant says, “I’m not sure how many animals are up for matzo.”