Animal Liberation

When Garry Winogrand took pictures of the city’s zoos in the sixties, he captured more than just the parallels between man and beast—what one curator described as a “mutual failure to recognize their own ludicrous predicaments.” “The Animals” series, which debuted at MoMA in 1969 and will be at Pace/MacGill beginning September 9, is now a time-capsule document of very antiquated notions of zoo design. How New York’s zoos have evolved:

Habitat Theory: The bars and concrete floors visible in Winogrand’s work were ripped out during the city’s zoological renaissance of the late seventies and early eighties and replaced with spaces modeled on natural habitats. Gone was the “postage stamp” principle (that one or two of each species should be kept in consecutive barren cages). Glass walls or moats now separate visitors from animals. And instead of DON’T FEED ME. I BITE signs, placards talk about endangered species.

Human-Animal Interaction: When the Central Park Zoo reopened in 1988, visitors complained that moats kept them from touching the animals. Exactly the point, says the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Richard Lattis, who oversees the city’s four main zoos. There’s now greater scientific understanding of how diseases can jump between species as a result of, say, feeding. (One Winogrand image: a hippo’s mouth stuffed with a food wrapper.)

Population Control: The new Central Park Zoo reduced its number of species by a third. The elephants are long gone, and Lattis says the five-and-a-half-acre zoo should never have had giant mammals. Similarly, the Bronx Zoo’s Lion House has not held big cats since the seventies. It will reopen in 2006 as a home to Madagascar’s small animals, like lemurs. And animals are now grouped by region rather than appearance. Horses and zebras were once neighbors, though they would never have seen each other in nature.

Mental Health: Thirty years ago, animals were “not challenged.” Now, at the Bronx Zoo’s “Congo” exhibit, visitors serve as stimuli. Put your finger on the glass wall, and chances are a gorilla will do the same. Even vultures get their dead rats wrapped in brown paper. They like to pick apart the packaging before they eat.

Animal Liberation