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The Bronx Zoo’s historic Lion House is no more. The 1903 Beaux-Arts building still stands, but the felines long ago moved on to greener pastures beyond the zoo’s original Astor Court; their expulsion was recently made permanent with the opening of Madagascar! in the great cats’ former haunts.

Madagascar! represents everything a modern zoo aspires to be. The new exhibit celebrates biodiversity and trumpets a message of conservation and scientific leadership, from the zoo’s role in establishing nature reserves on the island nation to “eco-friendly building features such as hi-tech skylights and water recycling.” It was able to get Bank of America to pony up financial support for the month-long opening celebration. And with that official explanation point, it may have doomed quaint but less evocative exhibit titles like World of Reptiles, Sea Bird Aviary, and Mouse House.

I went to Madgascar! the week it opened, and I was impressed (though I suppose one should expect to be impressed by anything that cost $62 million to build and $15 to see). The slow zoological march from barred cages and desultory bear pits to exhibits that more closely replicate an animal’s natural environment hits its stride in the new homes of Nile crocodiles, tomato frogs, ring-tailed lemurs, and even cockroaches.

Yet as much as I enjoyed Madagascar!, I left with a slight twinge of longing. Maybe it was the crushing crowds, the children banging on Plexiglas, or the enormous empty strollers that parents continued to push through narrow halls while their brood ran free. Whatever it was, I left Madgascar! in need or a more intimate zoo experience, one that I hoped would leave me as restored as the modern exhibits attempted to leave the Bronx Zoo animals.

That’s how I found myself at the Cohanzick Zoo in southern New Jersey. I live in Philadelphia, home to the nation’s oldest zoo, itself a Victorian wonder built in the model of the European animal gardens that started the whole public zoo craze. Yet from time to time I make my way to the Garden State’s first zoo, tucked away in one of its last rural pockets.

Named for the Native Americans who once lived in the area, the Cohanzick Zoo is a small one — it’s home to about 200 animals, while the Bronx has more than 4,000. The zoo is located in Bridgeton, a town that’s seen better days. It contains the largest historic district in the state and remains one of the few towns of any size in a largely agricultural area. Its downtown, though, has faded over the years. The streetscape bears the signs of renewal efforts common to struggling cities: new brick sidewalks, old-fashioned lampposts, and a non-profit Main Street Association trying desperately to attract more than just dollar stores and Chinese restaurants to its business district. The unemployment rate in the area is about two points higher than the national average; the county is the poorest in the state.

Yet despite Bridgeton’s slow decline, it has held onto its zoo; the city covers $380,000 of Cohanzick’s $400,000 annual budget. On a recent afternoon, there was no long line of traffic, as there was in the Bronx. Instead I parked right at the entrance and walked directly in. The small booth by the gate is filled not with any zoo employee, but with yard tools. This is because the Cohanzick is free. There’s no $15 admission, no surcharges of $3 to enter a butterfly garden, $4 to cruise on a monorail, or $5 to ride a camel. It’s one of just a few such institutions in the country — the Detroit Zoo, which provides a list of free zoos on its Web site, lists only 21.

You’re not given a map when you enter the Cohanzick Zoo, but you don’t really need one anyway. A tour of the zoo is a small loop that starts with three white-nose coati in an exhibit built of pressure-treated lumber and fencing. There’s a walk-through aviary, farm pens with a goat and a few llamas, a collection of owls, a puma, a leopard, a New Guinea singing dog. Cohanzick’s nod to Madagascar is a collection of ring-tailed lemurs that scurried up the fence when a family of roosters walked by. Its pride is a white tiger, whose daily 3:00 feeding is advertised around the zoo on signs illustrated with hamburger and T-bone clip art.

Such modest touches are visible all around the zoo. Multimedia elements such as interactive games or videos are nonexistent. In their place are signs of varying usefulness, from the simply descriptive (Tragopan, tragopan temminckii, Home range: Asia), to the mildly informative (Barred Owl; Habitat: woodlands near water; Natural diet: rodents, birds, crustaceans). There is no multimillion-dollar capital campaign at the Cohanzick Zoo, no black-tie nights of cocktails and hors d’oeuvres aimed at tapping wealthy donors; instead, a sign reads, volunteers are “desperately needed” to paint fences and help with general maintenance. A sun-faded football is stuck on top of the Great Horned Owl enclosure. Banners hanging above the approach to the zoo feature animals, such as polar bears and giraffes, that visitors won’t find inside. A hand-painted sign at the white-handed gibbon cage warns, “Don’t Tease the Animals.” (It’s a seemingly obvious but nevertheless necessary request: In March, two teenagers were arrested after witnesses saw them shooting the white tiger and Himalayan black bear with pellet guns.)

Larger, better-known zoos operate with a four-part mission of conservation, science, education, and recreation. The Cohanzick Zoo does not. There are no laboratories on its grounds. It is not sending researchers to Madagascar or Patagonia or the Arctic. Other zoos use those functions to defend themselves against critics, but the Cohanzick has no such need. In a way, small zoos like the Cohanzick operate under the radar; they’re usually unknown to all but those who live near them.

It’s unclear exactly how many small zoos there are in the United States. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums lists 218 institutions as accredited by the body; but zoos like the Cohanzick do not fall under the auspices of the AZA. Small zoos generally lack the resources to participate in the kind of research or provide the level of guest services that the AZA requires for accreditation. At the Cohanzick, guest services include a gift shop that’s open just a few days a week and vending machines near the restrooms.

But though small, Bridgeton’s zoo has ties to some large city zoos, at least in terms of their non-scientific origins. The Cohnazick Zoo began in 1934 with the exhibition of a small herd of deer. According to Elizabeth Hanson, author of Animal Attractions: Nature on Display in American Zoos, Como Zoo in St. Paul, Minnesota, began as well with donations of deer from the St. Paul and Minneapolis parks. In St. Louis and Buffalo, zoos opened with the animals of those cities’ World’s Fairs of the early 20th century. Denver’s began as a bear gifted to the mayor, Detroit’s with a circus that went belly-up.

These are zoos whose origins are grounded in the simple pleasure in, and perceived value of, looking at wildlife. Yet while the large city zoos transformed into institutions more similar to the Bronx Zoo, those like the Cohanzick remain fixed in time, places people go not to be educated, but to be entertained by looking at animals.

“Why look at animals?” art critic John Berger asks in an essay of the same name. His answer gets at the desire of children (and, in fact, many adults) to bang on the Plexiglas at the Bronx and other zoos. “The eyes of an animal when they consider a man are attentive and wary,” Berger writes. “…But by no other species except man will the animal’s look be recognised as familiar. Other animals are held by the look. Man becomes aware of himself returning the look.”

Alas, the marginalization of animals — their disappearance from our daily lives, as well as the soullessness imposed on them in the wake of Descartes — is what ultimately makes such banging a failure. Zoogoing itself, according to Berger, can be nothing but a disappointment, as with marginalization animals have been “immunised to encounter,” and never meet the visitor’s gaze. And with that goes the use in looking at them:

That look between animal and man, which may have played a crucial role in the development of human society, and which, in any case, all men had always lived until less than a century ago, has been extinguished.

Berger is right. Alone at Cohanzick’s white-handed gibbon enclosure, I was inches away from the animal. The gibbon looked over my shoulder, and though I clicked my tongue and even said, “Hello,” he wouldn’t meet my eyes. Instead, after a few moments, he grabbed a toy gibbon and slowly climbed a tree.


But at the same time, a disappointment in the animal encounter does not necessarily lead to a disappointment with the home of that failed encounter — such let-downs are the same at the Cohanzick and the Bronx. The value of small zoos like the former isn’t in what they’re missing, but rather what they suggest. Bank of America did not build the Cohanzick aviary; the local Rotary did. Nor did it donate the Himalayan black bear; that was the work of the Bridgeton Evening News.

That a city struggling with the human-centered problems of poverty and unemployment can continue to support a zoo (a free one, at that) speaks not simply to civic pride, but rather to the reason a zoo can be a source of civic pride in the first place.

In the shadow of debates over offshore drilling; over which landscapes and species should be preserved, and to what extent; over the sustainability of food production, the preservation of small zoos belie a fundamental (if unspoken) agreement that the natural world is one worth experiencing. More important, it suggests that it’s one worth protecting, even if we’re not quite ready to do so. • 11 July 2008