Save the Bronx Zoo!

February 13, 1993|By DANIEL BERGER

Zoo is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as ''colloq. [The first three letters of Zoological taken as one syllable.] The Zoological Gardens in Regent's Park, London; also extended to similar collections of animals elsewhere.''

The first collections of exotic animals of which we know were in ancient Egypt and China. In modern Europe, they were called menageries and belonged to potentates.

During the French revolution, the mob looted the one at Versailles, eating some specimens and moving others to the Jardin des Plantes in Paris. So that city's great public collection of animals was the ''Garden of the Plants.''

The Gardens of the Zoological Society of London in Regent's Park opened in 1828. That was a mouthful that no one was going to say. And so, as the OED explains, it was the first ''zoo.''

And, very quickly, the best. It served as model for others, including their names. The article on these institutions in the 11th Edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica (1911) is under ''zoological gardens.'' So zoo is a pithy slang term from Victorian England that is now a universal word, proper in many tongues.

The Bronx is a borough of New York City and county of New York State. It is named for Jonas Bronck, who founded a settlement there in 1641. The Zoological Park at Bronx Borough was opened by the Zoological Society of New York in 1899. That was another mouthful that no one was going to say. The Bronx Zoo was born.

Bronx Zoo is one of the best names for anything anywhere. Its two words, two syllables, eight letters and one space tell you what it is and where it is. You will never forget that name or institution.

The Bronx Zoo is world-famous, partly because it remains one of the world's best, and partly because it has such a crisp, informative, unforgettable name.

Now the New York Zoological Society has emulated corporate America and renamed itself NYZS/The Wildlife Conservation Society.

That is a name that no one is going to say. The letters NYZS stand for nothing, just a vestigial link to the society's forgotten origin.

Worse, the NYZS/The Wildlife Conservation Society has changed the name of its magnificent menagerie in the Bronx to the International Wildlife Conservation Park.

Four words, 12 syllables, 37 letters and three spaces. Not many people will say it. Few will know what is, and fewer will know where.

These are, as NYZS/The Wildlife Conservation Society President William Conway said, ''highfalutin words.'' Highfalutin for oblivion.

The smaller zoos the society operates in New York are now the Central Park Wildlife Conservation Center, the Aquarium for Wildlife Conservation, the Queens Wildlife Conservation Center and the Prospect Park Wildlife Conservation Center. The last is in Brooklyn, but the society keeps quiet about that. ''Brooklyn,'' like ''zoo'' has sometimes been given a pejorative connotation.

If ''zoological garden'' became ''zoo,'' What will ''International Wildlife Conservation Park'' become? Probably forgotten.

What will the signs on the New York subway say? If they want to help New Yorkers and tourists find the place: ''Bronx Zoo.''

Not everyone loves a zoo. Some crusaders for animal rights want to abolish them.

Most people who run zoos are animal-rights advocates themselves. These professionals justify zoos by using them to preserve species and advocate conservation.

As finances allow, they abandon cramped cages. Fashionable exhibits today are simulations of habitats for human education and animal comfort. Humane cages allow animals space for natural behaviors and mingling with other species providing they don't eat each other.

New exhibits cannot fool the animals. They must still know they are in zoos, but must find the newer kind more tolerable.

The new fashion explains the name change at the Bronx Zoo. It will not fool people who hate zoos. It may fool some who love them, and lose track of this one.

What this new name conjures up is a vast habitat in the remotest Adirondacks from which all human visitors are banned. People who hate zoos would favor such a thing.

But that is not what the deceptively misnamed International Wildlife Conservation Park is. It's a zoo in the Bronx.

Endangered species cry out for preservation, as does the language.

Daniel Berger writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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