Cope Lake, Bronx Zoo

When the Bronx Zoo was developed at the turn of the 20th century, its design was considered innovative as it preserved much of its natural terrain, giving many of the animals room to roam at a time when many zoos kept their exhibits in tight cages. The preservation of the landscape enabled the Bronx River to flow freely through the zoo, and retained some of the ponds and brooks within the zoo for the enjoyment of the animals.

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One such waterway is Cope Lake, located near the northern border of the zoo by Fordham Road.

Where it is

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The oldest Bronx Zoo map that I’ve found online comes from the collection of rail aficionado Emily Moser of I Ride the Harlem Line, a 1904 New York Central brochure depicting the zoo and its nearest train stations. With two milldams within the zoo, the Bronx River’s reservoirs are labeled as Bronx Lake and Lake Agassiz. The former had a public boathouse, while the latter is named after the famed biologist and geologist Louis Agassiz. Cope Lake is near the northwest entrance. It drains into the Bronx River.

In contrast to Agassiz, and the self-explanatory Aquatic Mammals Pond and Beaver Pond, I haven’t been able to find the namesake of Cope Lake. My guess is that it either relates to a pre-zoo property owner, a beloved zoo staffer or donor, or a famed naturalist.

An Earlier Map

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The oldest map of the zoo grounds is the 1896 Preliminary plan of the Zoological Park for New York City in South Bronx Park, predating the zoo’s opening by three years. According to the Bronx River Alliance, the lake was used for ice harvesting prior to its acquisition by the city. On this map, Cope Lake is dubbed Prehistoric Lake. Pelham Avenue is the link within Bronx Park connecting Fordham Road to Pelham Parkway.

Some of the lake’s water came from a tributary brook flowing from its south that today includes a pond within the Children’s Zoo and the aviary.

Rainey Memorial Gates

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The least used entrance into the zoo is at Rainey Memorial Gates, which leads into an employee parking area.The ornate gates date to May 10, 1934, its animal scuptures designed by Paul Manship. If the name sounds familiar, his art was also on display at Rockefeller Center, Palais des Nations in Geneva, and the gates to Central Park Zoo. He was a master of the Art Deco sculpture.

The gate’s namesake was Paul J. Rainey, a big game hunter, whose sister Grace Rainey Rogers donated the gates to the zoo. On one hand, Rainey killed animals for sport, but in the course of his hobby he took note of the species in decline and contributed specimens to research. In a way, it was a story similar to that of President Theodore Roosevelt, also a big game hunter who went on to preserve vast tracts of land as national monuments.

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On the eastern side of the Rainey Memorial Gates, the brook flowing out of Cope Lake enters the Bronx River’s Lake Agassiz. In the scene above, it is late August and thick vegetation gives this Bronx scene a tropical appearance.

Pelicans and Gibbons

Looking at old maps and newspaper stories about Cope Lake, the empty lake of today served for decades as a habitat for pelicans, with an island inside it as a summer refuge for gibbons. It began in 1945 in what the New York Times described as an “annual vacation” for the gibbon family. They were brought to the island and fed by rowboat. As gibbons are averse to water, the fifty foot distance from the shore ensured that there would be no escape.

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A more humorous account of Cope Lake appeared in the Sept. 23, 1955 New York Times, where reporter Murray Schumach writes about the zookeepers’ struggle to round up the lake’s pelicans ahead of the winter season. Keeping a nautical theme throughout the story, he described the group as a navy and the roundup resulting in boat collisions and staffers swimming to shore.

Although the pelicans were pinioned (had their wings slightly clipped to prevent flight), they had the ability to glide for up to 100 feet.

The island inside Cope Lake was heavily wooded to resemble the native Borneo habitat of the gibbons. A zoo this large can be compared to a theme park as it has rides and zones based on theme. And like a theme park, it has had exhibits come and go. Cope Lake’s status as an exhibit ended in the 1990s, with the pelicans and gibbons relocated permanently indoors.

Wildlife Research Center

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In recent years, the land around Cope Lake has been repurposed for the zoo’s institutional and research units. In 2009, the Center for Global Conservation opened on the southern side of Cope Lake. Designed by the renowned firm FxFowle Architects, it features many environmentally sustainable elements in its construction and serves as a global center for the Wildlife Conservation Society’s work.

Learn More: The rich history of the Wildlife Conservation Society and Bronx Zoo is told in great detail at Wild Things: The WCS Archives Blog.

In the News:

Bronx Times reports on Mayor de Blasio’s denial of Donald Trump’s request to expand his golf course to the shoreline at Ferry Point Park.

Bronx Times reports on the $40 million improvement scheduled for the Bronx River Greenway.

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