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Although the Zoological Society of Philadelphia chartered the Philadelphia Zoo 35 years before the New York Zoological Society was established, Central Park's zoo may be the oldest municipal zoo in the United States, and today the Central Park Zoo is one of the most-visited features in the park.Animals have been exhibited at Central Park from nearly the very beginning of its history, starting with a bear cub left in the custody of a park messenger boy, Philip Holmes, shortly after construction of the park began in the late 1850s.But the biggest change was the removal of the cages, and the talk of the day was all about “making the zoo barless.” Removing cages also meant that the Society could organize the animals around a more holistic premise than size: in 1941, the Society pioneered the principle of exhibiting animals by continents, and with the Central Park Zoo they decided to maintain the quadrangle layout of the 1930s zoo while adopting a plan of three “biomes”—tropical, temperate, and polar.Architect Kevin Roche, who also devised the master plan for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, integrated old and new elements while conforming to contemporary principles of animal care.Eventually, however, no amount of love and attention could save the zoo from falling into disrepair, and the zoo became what many found to be a squalid place—Fifth Avenue tenants complained about the noise and smells, and others found the succession of spare cages depressing.
From the 1860s to 1890s, prominent citizens such as financier August Belmont and inventor Samuel Morse donated various animals; General Custer gave the zoo a rattlesnake, and General Sherman offered an African Cape buffalo, one of the spoils of his march through Georgia.
One of the zoo's most exotic donations was a “tiglon” that was donated to the City in 1938.
Charles the Tiglon was the offspring of a female African lion and a male Siberian tiger, the combination of which being more rare than a “liger,” which is the offspring of a male lion and female tiger.
Although the deal gave concession rights to the Society, the three zoos required a great deal of private financing, and several big backers emerged, including Lila Acheson Wallace, the cofounder along with her husband Dewitt of (the Wallace Foundation has given billions of dollars to charitable causes).
Although nearly everyone agreed that it was inhumane to keep large zoo animals in such a small zoo, what to do with the new facility was an open question.