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The zoo is home to an indoor rain forest, a chilled penguin house, and a polar bear pool, which is currently occupied by a pair of grizzly bear siblings.
The zoo coordinates breeding programs for some endangered species: tamarin monkeys, Wyoming toads, thick-billed parrots, and red pandas.
(The zoo from this era has been commonly known as the "1934 Zoo" or "Robert Moses Zoo".) The zoo was renovated in the mid-1980s and reopened in 1988, replacing cages with naturalistic environments.
Trellised, vine-clad, glass-roofed pergolas link the three major exhibit areas—tropic, temperate and polar—housed in discreet buildings of brick trimmed with granite, masked by vines.
The redesign of 1983–88 was executed by the architectural firm of Kevin Roche, Dinkeloo.
The facility's menagerie cages were replaced with more naturalistic exhibits. The renovated zoo had originally been planned to reopen in 1985 at a cost of million; however, the project was delayed for three years.
In 1864, a formal zoo received charter confirmation from New York's assembly, making it the United States' second publicly owned zoo, after the Philadelphia Zoo, which was founded in 1859.
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The children's zoo section opened in 1961, funded largely in part by Senator Herbert Lehman and his wife Edith.
The children's zoo featured attractions like a petting area with ducks, rabbits, and chickens; a large fiberglass whale statue dubbed "Whaley" (which acted as the entrance to the small zoo); a Noah's Ark feature; and a medieval castle feature.
There are fruit bats in the rainforest and a large free-flight area for birds. The gates of the Children's Zoo by Paul Manship are a notable feature retained from the earlier layout.
The zoo was not part of the original "Greensward" design for Central Park created by Olmsted and Vaux, but a Central Park menagerie near New York's Arsenal, on the edge of Central Park located at Fifth Avenue facing East 64th Street, spontaneously evolved in 1859 from gifts of exotic pets and other animals informally given to the park; the original animals on display included a bear and some swans.