Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Monkey House Ends a 111-Year Run in the Bronx, a Victim of Zoo Evolution

Jose Ortiz, a 50-year-old taxi driver who grew up a few blocks from the Bronx Zoo, remembers how young he was when the creatures in the Monkey House captured his imagination.

“When you see them as a kid, and you see they have five fingers and an opposable thumb just like you do, your mind starts to wander,” he said. “Your imagination starts going, and suddenly you’re in the jungle with them swinging on vines — you’re in ‘The Jungle Book.’ ”

“Those are the best memories that anyone can have,” he said.

Now memories are all that anyone can have. The zoo closed the 111-year-old Monkey House on Monday for good.

It was a casualty of evolution, but not the biological kind.

1906 A mechanical photogravure which was an extremely high end printing method of the Victorian Edwardian era that delivered incredible detail and no dot matrix pattern.

“Zoo exhibitry has evolved” since the Monkey House opened, said Jim Breheny, the director of the Bronx Zoo. “Originally,” he said, “animals were grouped taxonomically, so you typically had a large cat house, a monkey house, a pachyderm house. They stuck all these animals together in groups that seemed to make sense.”

Later, zoos usually grouped the animals according to the habitats or continents they had come from. Later still, zoos tried to “present animals in as naturalistic a setting as possible,” said Steve Feldman, a spokesman for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, an industry group.

“That’s both for the education of visitors and for the care and welfare of the animals themselves,” Mr. Feldman said.

But the Monkey House remained — popular with zoo visitors, but something of a throwback. Mr. Breheny said that when he was a teenager in the 1970s, “the Lion House had tigers, lions, snow leopards — all these big carnivores in one place.”


The tigers moved to Wild Asia when it opened in 1977, and the snow leopards to Himalayan Highlands in the 1980s. And with the zoo’s “Madagascar” exhibit, “you learn more about lemurs than if you go to an old-style monkey house that would have a cage with lemurs in it,” he said.

Mr. Breheny said that the Monkey House was the second-oldest building at the zoo that was still used for its original purpose — the oldest is the Reptile House, commissioned in 1898, a year before the zoo even opened — and that the Monkey House had landmark status.

Whatever it becomes will “need to be true to the exterior of the building and the original footprint,” Mr. Breheny said, adding that no decision had been made about the building’s future use.

He said that the old Lion House had been turned into the home for “Madagascar.” And some buildings at the zoo have been demolished. He said the current butterfly garden was where the Great Apes House once was. “That was a state-of-the-art building when it opened,” he said. “It went through a major renovation” — in the 1960s, he said — “and then it was replaced by Congo. Those animals were all moved from the old ape house and that building taken down.”

He said the Monkey House had been kept open because it was an “indoor destination” for visitors in the cold-weather months.

Year unknown

“The animals are still in there now,” he said. Most of them will be moved to other areas of the zoo, but some will be transferred to new homes at other zoos that, like the Bronx Zoo, are run by the Wildlife Conservation Society. “Some of them definitely will be moving” to the Central Park and Prospect Park Zoos, he said.

The Monkey House was also where, in 1906, the zoo exhibited a human, a Congolese pygmy named Ota Benga, who wrestled with an orangutan in a cage. “It’s certainly something that shouldn’t have happened,” Mr. Breheny said.

The Circus "NO SPIN ZONE": Ota Benga

The Circus "NO SPIN ZONE": Ota Benga at the Bronx Zoo

The Circus "NO SPIN ZONE": "Congo Gorilla Forest"--Bronx Zoo in 1972 and 1906

The Circus "NO SPIN ZONE": Ota Benga--The Bronx Zoo's least shining moment.

But for visitors with memories — memories of seeing their faces merge in the reflections of the monkeys, memories of taking their children and grandchildren and seeing faces merge in their reflections — the zoo without the Monkey House will just not be the same.

“It was always exciting,” said Vittorio Principe, an owner of Little Italy Auto Repair in the Bronx. “It made you want to go to the zoo, just for that.”

He said that he had been planning his 8-year-old nephew’s first visit to the zoo, and that the boy had already put in his request.

“He wanted to visit the Monkey House,” Mr. Principe said. “He said that’s the one place he really wanted to go. He said he wanted to hit that place first.”

'The Bronx Zoo continues to set the standard for the conservation of their incredible building and their history. I personally feel the only time they failed was when they weaseled out and buckled to 'public opinion' by redlighting the historic Head and Horns Collection.'

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