- Date: 1866
- Sculptor: Auguste Cain
- Medium & size: Bronze, over lifesize.
- Location: Central Park Zoo, Intelligence Garden. To see it, you must pay admission for the Zoo. Once inside the Zoo, turn left.
Like Eagles and Prey, the Tigress is an insider’s joke. She’s about to feed to her hungry cubs with a dead peacock. The sculpture was originally placed on Cherry Hill, where live peacocks strutted their stuff. Here’s one on the loose in 1875 at Bethesda Terrace, a few steps east of Cherry Hill.
Sculptures of the class to which the pieces we have mentioned belong, has little that is elevating in its tendency. They are simply records of carnage and rapine, and however masterly the execution, or however profound the scientific observation they display, they are apart from the purpose of noble art, whose aim is to lift the spirit of man to a higher region and feed him with grander thoughts.
Animals were not part of the Greensward Plan’s pastoral landscape – but donations came galloping and flying and roaring in. This list comes from the Board of Commissioners’ report for 1866.
Small animals such as former pets were housed inside the Arsenal, where they sent a lingering stench wafting upstairs to the headquarters of the Board of Commissioners and the Park police. Larger animals were lent by traveling circuses, who took them back when touring season began. These large animals were tethered outside the Arsenal or kept in ramshackle cages nearby.
The Herald Hoax
In 1874, when the park was 15 years old, the menagerie had 600 animals. For pedestrians – and that meant the lower classes, who couldn’t afford carriages – the main attraction of Central Park was the menagerie.
The New York Herald, well known for its sensational stories, published an article in 1874 that became one of the nineteenth century’s most notorious hoaxes. In the Herald’s front-page story, a reporter breathlessly described how the rhinoceros, a “picture of stupid amiability,” was teased by a keeper. The rhino broke out of its cage and murdered the keeper. Then it freed the lions, panthers, bears, manatees, monkeys, and more. Near the future site of the Plaza Hotel, a tiger fought a lion. An anaconda tried to swallow a giraffe. A panther ran into St. Thomas’s church on Fifth Avenue and sank its teeth into a little old lady’s neck. The rhinoceros died when it plunged into the excavation for a sewer on the Upper East Side. A lioness on the prowl in Battery Park was slain by brave hunters from Sweden who were en route to Nebraska.
In tiny print at the end of the Herald’s 1874 story, the writer admitted he’d made all this up. But, he said forbiddingly, “a little oversight, a trifling imprudence might lead to the actual happening of all, and even worse than has been pictured.” Of course, many readers never finished the story. A panic ensued, rapidly followed by threats of prosecution for the Herald.
Some twenty years later, Harper’s Weekly republished the hoax with hilarious illustrations.
Regularizing the Zoo
In the 1890s, an energetic zookeeper set out to build a permanent collection for the zoo in Central Park. He traded one New York hippo for a lion and lioness, a Siberian tiger, an antelope, a bearded vulture, two leopards, two ostriches, two condors, and twenty swans. By 1901, old wooden fences were replaced with iron pipes and houses were built for elephants, lion, deer, monkeys, eagles, and doves.
- Olmsted’s remarks on the zoo (he didn’t approve: are you surprised?) appear in an article in the New York Times of 4/6/1890: “The Zoological Gardens. Difference of Opinion as to their location. Experts would have them out of Central Park – the Park Board decides upon a site.”
- For more on Central Park in the nineteenth century, see my book Central Park: The Early Years (details here) and my webpage incorporating an ever-increasing number of old images of the Park. Click on the “Central Park” tag in the Obsessions cloud at lower right for more posts on the Park.
- This post is adapted from the forthcoming Guides Who Know app on Central Park.
- Want more art like this delivered weekly to your inbox? Members of my free Sunday Recommendations list (email DuranteDianne@gmail.com) receive three art-related suggestions every week: check out my favorites from last year’s recommendations. For more goodies, check out my Patreon page.