The Central Park Zoo in the mid-to-late 1960s barely resembles today’s facility. The centerpiece, the Sea Lion Pool, which remains pretty much as it was (with the addition of plexiglass walls, so you can see the seals swimming underwater). But the rest of it, which resembled a prison for animals, has been dramatically remodeled to be the more “naturalistic” habitat seen today.
For one thing, back then you could tell when you were close to the Zoo by the strong smell of excrement. Today, the smell is gone, with one exception: the Penguin room which has a fairly strong scent of guano. Well, they do have a lot of water birds paddling around in the simulated Antarctic environment; the main attraction is their own indoor large plexiglass pool where the aquatic acrobats can be admired while “flying” through the water. According to the penguin keeper, they love it when the keepers “turn the rain on.”
Back in the mid-1960s, I remember a row of cells behind the Sea Lion pool, where incarcerated animals could be seen behind two rows of bars. There was a gorilla, a leopard, and several other inmates. They either sat at the bars looking out sullenly, or paced back and forth endlessly.
That evening, Dad and I noticed a crowd of people around a large cage behind the “main prisoner’s row.” Like the other cages, black painted iron bars were mounted on a low brick parapet. Pressed up against the metal was a small multitude.
A crowd tends to draw in ever more folks, and soon we were absorbed into it. The swarm was fluid; movement back and forth like the circular action of an ocean gyre. Going with the flow, we soon drifted into the middle. An instant later, Dad and I found ourselves at the bars of the cage, looking in. Face to face, but with what? I couldn’t say.
So, how can I describe it?
I’ll start with size. Size matters, doesn’t it?
It was large, as big as a garden shed. And hairy. The ringlets of curled shag coiled from almost one side of the cage to other. I looked from one side to the other. If not for the horns, I would not have been sure on which side the attendants left the hay.
The next thing I noticed was that the object, or rather the beast, was absolutely immobile, more so than the other animals in front. This contributed to my sense of disorientation as to which end was the “front,” and which was the “back.” That lack of motion annoyed me. I stamped my foot on the ground in an attempt to startle it. That failed. Whatever it was, it remained utterly impassive.
The last thing I noticed was the fact that my nose hurt. It felt like it had been punched, or worse, had been overpowered by flames. I have always benefitted from a keen sense of smell. That evening, it was a burden like a cross.
This beast did not have a polite odor. It was like a backwards-running waterfall of an overflowing cesspool that had overrun a power plant in a third world country surging up my nostrils, then cascading down my throat like radioactive slag. No electricity in the village; just all of it up my nose. Rudolf the red nosed reindeer during shock treatment. Without the presents.
My body rejected the involuntary motion of breathing. I had to force air in through my ears and backside to avoid both passing out from the smell.
“James,” Dad interrupted my reverie of stank, “do you know what this is?” He used the same tone of voice whenever he had something to tease me with, like when he called Mr. Spock a “chop suey salesman.” I immediately braced myself defensively.
Really, I had no clue as to what this thing was. If I could have articulated it, I might have been able to conjure up “Cousin Itt’s taxidermied sheep-dog, smothered in Channel No.1 and 2?”
Cousin Itt from ABC-TV’s The Addams Family.
“It’s a yak!” he announced triumphantly, emphasizing both the “y” and “k” in “yak.” I stared at the critter dumfounded. How could something so simply-named and so still, smell so much like ass?
“What a disgrace!” Dad said loudly at Shaggy the Stankest. “Pee Yew! What a smell!”
The yak failed to move one iota during all this. As true New Yorkers, I think Dad and I remained within the Yak-odor-zone longer than anyone else. I was left feeling that Dad was truly indignant that such an animal could actually exist, even theoretically. What could be its conceivable purpose other than to stink up the hillsides of Mount Everest?
Did Armin, an innocent and gullible young yak, visit a fast-talking career counselor in the Hindu-Kush valley? Was it conceivable that he bought the pitch? “Armin, I got an opening here for a yak to stink up New York! This could be the career move of a lifetime!!!”
“Yo be the stankest yak ever, bro!”
No, I don’t imagine that that was the way he ended up in New York. After all, it wasn’t his purpose in life to befoul a big city park.
Is it anyone’s?
This here yak was meant to peacefully graze on mountain hillsides and in valleys, where, interestingly, in their natural habitat, he would not reek (at least if not crammed into a small pen).
Not only was he (or she) out of context, but also subject to humiliating ridicule. My friend, the yak, was not in a happy career by any measure. I imagined he had decided to indicate his displeasure by defecating endlessly and refusing to move any muscle anywhere, with the sole exception of his sphincter.
The position of “Central Park Yak” had never been anywhere in Armin’s job specification.
It’s really not the purpose of this blog to rail against zoos, cruelty to animals, college students eating Tide pods, or whatever. But its probably clear to anyone with eyes, ears, and a nose, that the old Central Park Zoo, the ‘un-naturalized’ version that I remember from the mid-1960s, was not a humane experience for the inmates. The new, renovated zoo of the 1980s transformed the animal’s reality from something akin to 3 consecutive life sentences at Dannemora Prison to what they more easily relate to.
Context is king.
New York City in the humid hot summer sun, with a Dad to provide nickels for the Automat, to take me to the roof to watch the helicopters land, to shuttle me to Southampton, Long Island (and beyond), was a good natural environment for me.
But not for Armin. He really should not have been there.
Author’s note: After the Zoo’s renovation in the 1980s, there was no longer a Yak exhibit.