The History of Wild Animals in Central Park

The original plans for Central Park made no mention of a zoo, but wild animals had begun to take up residence before construction of the park was fully completed. Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, the park’s architects, build a perfect haven for both local wildlife and exotic animals within the urban confines of Manhattan.

As the park first began to open at the end of the 1950s, its southeast corner was only home to the Arsenal, a multipurpose building that currently houses the NYC Parks Department headquarters. It’s not entirely clear why animals were first brought to the area surrounding the Arsenal, but before long, a permanent menagerie was set up. In the 1930s, the menagerie was updated and officially became the Central Park Zoo.

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The story of the park’s unusual animals is not limited to the zoo, however. In the park’s early years, goat and sheep were nearly as common as squirrels are today. Over 200 sheep grazed on the appropriately named Sheep Meadow as a callback to the days when Central Park was rural farmland. Although the wool was sold or given to park workers, public interaction with the sheep was minimal. For up-close animal action, however, one didn’t have to go far.

Sheep Grazing in Central Park

c/o NYPL

Today, the Tisch Children’s Zoo offers visitors the chance to feed and pet some of the zoo’s friendlier inhabitants, albeit through a fence and under some supervision. Around the turn of the 20th century, unusual animals were not limited to the menagerie but could but found throughout Central Park. In addition to the horse carriages that have become an increasingly controversial Central Park fixture, donkey rides were once offered as a fun alternative. Supposedly costing just a nickel, donkeys could be seen lined up, saddled, and waiting for their next rider.

Donkeys in Central Park

1896: Donkeys in Central Park. c/o NYPL

The Mall is one of the only areas of Central Park which draws inspiration from the formal park designs of London and Paris. Despite the old-world promenade, New Yorkers quickly found a way to lighten the atmosphere. Alongside the large, horse-drawn carriages were goats pulling miniature carriages. The goats, most with long horns and even longer beards, would pull young children up and down the Mall.

goat carriages Central Park Mall

1904: “Children’s delight” driving a goat team on the mall, Central Park, New York. c/o Library of Congress

Although this park activity has long since disappeared, a new contingent of working goats appeared in Riverside Park last summer. Instead of pulling carriages, the goats were given free rein to eat their way through a large section of weeds, vines, and poison ivy.

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While goats and donkeys may not be strictly “exotic” animals, there can be no arguing about the rarity of camels and elephants. Camels from the menagerie were incredibly popular with park-goers and were often brought to Sheep Meadow to roam freely or give rides to children. The camels were occasionally attached to plows to assist park workers with planting. All camel-related news made its way into the local papers, with popular camels known by name throughout the neighborhood.

Central Park camel

c/o NYPL

Elephants were similarly popular during the early years of the zoo, with their enclosure drawing a constant stream of visitors. Hattie, one of the zoo’s two beloved elephants, was noted to have pulled a snowplow following blizzards while she lived in the park from 1903 until her death in 1922.

Hattie the elephant

Hattie the elephant with trainer Bill Snyder. Unknown author, publisher: Bain News Service / Public domain

Today, wild animals are either left in their original habitats or cared for by the Central Park Zoo’s trained staff, where profits are often used for conservationism. Nonetheless, Central Park remains a wildlife sanctuary amid the bustle of New York City. From the well-known squirrels to dozens of species of birds, the park offers plenty of glimpses into the natural world.

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