5 Treasures of the Central Park Zoo: Natural Habitats in the City

Zoo in central park
Nestled on six and a half acres of land in the middle of America’s most beloved urban park, the Central Park Zoo hosts over four million visitors each year and some 150 species of animals. A true urban jungle, the zoo’s residents — snow leopards, polar bears, sea lions, monkeys, a red panda and dozens of birds, reptiles, insects and fish — occupy some of the country’s most exclusive real estate. It is one of five zoos within New York City and, dating back to the 1850s, it’s the oldest one in the state.

A Brief History of the Central Park Zoo

The Central Park Zoo wasn’t in the original plans for Central Park, but not long after the park opened, a group of New Yorkers created the American Zoological and Botanical Society to plan for a designated menagerie within the park. It officially opened in the 1860s, but it was modified in the mid-1930s at the hands of the city’s new parks commissioner, Robert Moses. That version of the zoo — dubbed “The Robert Moses Zoo” — was demolished in 1982 to make way for a new version that replaced cages and enclosures with the more natural habitats we see today.
Today, the park is made up of a mishmash of structures, gardens and monuments from many different eras of the zoo’s history. If you take a closer look around while you’re touring the famed establishment, you’ll see many historical treasures that tell the story of the institution from decade to decade. Here are a few fun things to look for:
  1. The Arsenal — Built sometime between 1847 and 1851 as an arsenal for the New York State Militia’s ammunition, the Arsenal is an iconic brick building that served as a predecessor to the current zoo. In the 1860s, live exotic animals were donated to the menagerie and housed in cages within the building’s basement. The animals were moved to a formal menagerie in 1871. Today, the Arsenal is home to the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation and several other parks-related organizations.
  2. Tigress and Cubs — The Tigress and Cubs sculpture, created by Auguste Nicholas Cain in 1866, is one of Central Park’s oldest public works of art. The bronze and granite statue depicts the female cat and her cubs hunting a peacock. The work, which was cast at the F. Bardienne Foundry in Paris, was presented to the zoo in 1867 and remains in the Intelligence Garden today. While there are currently no live tigers in the zoo, it has housed many tigers over the course of its 150-plus-year history.
  3. The Central Park Zoo Eagles — Other historical markers in the zoo include a grouping of granite eagles that once topped the First Avenue Overpass along the Brooklyn Shore Parkway. The overpass was demolished in 1941, but the iconic sculptures didn’t go with it. Instead, they were transferred to the Central Park Zoo where they now guard the Sea Lion Pool. Interestingly, historians didn’t know where the eagles resided originally until researchers uncovered photos from the Parks Department showing them in their original location.
  4. The Delacorte Musical Clock — Located near the Children’s Zoo and Wildlife Center, the Delacorte Musical Clock plays 32 nursery rhyme tunes every hour, including “Old King Cole,” “Hey Diddle Diddle,” “Frère Jacques” and “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” The clock was a gift from publisher George T. Delacorte — the same philanthropist who commissioned Central Park’s famed Alice in Wonderland statue — in 1965. The clock sits atop a brick arcade bridge and is surrounded by a carousel of bronze animal sculptures.
Central Park ZOO
  1. Lehman Gates — The Children’s Zoo was established in 1961 after a generous gift from Senator Herbert H. Lehman and his wife Edith, who gave $500,000 to help establish the Lehman Zoo for Children. To mark the donation, the park commissioned a striking gateway designed by Edward Coe Embury and sculptor Paul Manship, who crafted it from Swenson green granite and bronze. The gates depict a boy dancing with goats to the music of panpipes played by two boys on either side of the boy and goat.
red panda
Of course, the real treasures of the Central Park Zoo are its animal inhabitants, including the beloved snow leopard and red panda. Make sure to schedule a visit to this significant and historic zoo the next time you’re visiting the Big Apple to catch a glimpse of some of these wild creatures living in the middle of Manhattan.