Escaping From the City Hustle at the Bronx Zoo
The city is a fascinating place, offering its inhabitants the chance to dramatically switch atmospheres within minutes via a short subway ride. One minute, a person can be immersed in a cultural hotspot like Chinatown, experiencing novel tastes and smells, and the next minute, they can be inhaling the smell of new spring flowers in Central Park. This characteristic of the city ensures that those who call it home, will never get bored. But what about a person who has spent much of their life surrounded by wildlife? What if your idea of fun is tracking rhinos across the plains of Africa? Does the city really have anything to satisfy that longing urge? Apart from the astronomical numbers of pigeons, I would say probably not.
I spent a good part of my undergraduate education at the University of New Hampshire. A typical class period involved trekking out into “College Woods” to identify shrub and tree species. Weekly field trips brought us into the heart of the woods where we could learn to observe and identify native wildlife. The final exam for one of my classes consisted of being dropped off in the middle of College Woods and using our newly acquired compass and tracking skills to find our way out. After my transfer to the more urban environment of Drew University in New Jersey, I satisfied my “wildlife needs” by traveling to Africa every summer. For three years, the summer months (and sometimes the winter months too) were dedicated to immersing myself in the spectacular wildlife of Kenya and Uganda.
Now, as I find myself at Columbia University in the wonderful Conservation Biology Masters Program, I couldn’t be happier. But sometimes I feel that longing urge to be back in a “wild” environment start to creep up on me again. Once I get into that state of mind, the loud cars, whizzing subways and pissed off cab drivers feel more like the components of a nightmare rather than unique things that make the city a fascinating place. I thought I would never escape this vicious cycle, until I started to do my research at the Bronx Zoo.
Just a subway ride away from campus, the Bronx Zoo is the world’s largest metropolitan zoo with a collection that represents nearly 650 species from around the world. The perks of doing research at this amazing site soon became evident. I began to take daily walks around the zoo after the day’s work was done, stopping to look at each exhibit much longer than I ever did while visiting with parents or friends. While sitting in front of the gorilla habitat for close to an hour one day, a very familiar feeling began to overtake me. I was suddenly brought back to my last summer in Uganda, sitting just a few feet away from a wild chimp resting in a fig tree, who was grooming her youngest offspring. I felt immersed again, observing and learning, feeling like I was part of a foreign world that must be fiercely protected against change. Then it suddenly hit me that I was not in a foreign land, I was in the Bronx! I realized that as conservation biologists we must work to abandon the idea of the “mystical wild” as being the only place that is beautiful and worth protecting. The truly “untouched wild” does not really exist! The world is a rapidly changing place that requires us to work with wildlife as it is now. We must apply conservation practices that will ensure that wildlife has a realistic future in an increasingly developed and urbanized world.
Conducting research in the city has opened my eyes to the fact that the beauty of biodiversity can be found everywhere, not just in the rainforests of Africa, and it must be protected everywhere as well. Just because a species is not mystically darting across the African grasslands, does not mean it shouldn’t be a conservation priority. As conservation biologists, we must value biodiversity in all shapes and forms, and all locations. A more sustainable future cohabitated by humans and wild species depends on it.