In 2020, the Smithsonian Institution Conservation Biology Institute transferred two juvenile female American ‘bison‘ from the American Prairie Reserve in Montana to the National Zoo in the heart of Rock Creek Park in Washington, DC. The Zoo tells an optimistic story about these two young cows, who remain on display there: the sign at their quarters projects that ‘one day, they will breed with pure-bred males’ to help this highly threatened species recover. Named Lucy and Gally by students at two DC universities with buffalo mascots – Howard University, a leading historically-Black institution, and Gallaudet, the United States’s premier university for Deaf students – the two now graze the grass within their paddock under the gaze of 1.5 million human visitors per year.

Lucy and Gally in their paddock at the Smithsonian National Zoological Park in Washington, DC, USA. Photo: Dawn Biehler, 2023.

These creatures whom humans in DC call Lucy and Gally are urban animals not only in the sense of inhabiting a site of dense human settlement, power relations, infrastructure, and cultural contestation that we call the city. Their lives and histories are also bound up in the process of urbanization that ties vast regional and global territories to cities like DC and New York through dispossession, extraction, labor, and even conservation practices. Here I draw from Hillary Angelo and David Wachsmuth’s critique of ‘methodological cityism‘ in urban political ecology. Angelo and Wachsmuth argue that too many urban political ecology scholars have bounded their studies within the space of the city itself rather than connecting such locations with the broader geographies of capitalist urbanization.

The lives of our non-human fellow creatures, and indeed the very idea of an urban animal, exemplify the need for the kind of expanded analysis that Angelo and Wachsmuth call for. Whether reviled like a rat in an alley or celebrated like a migrant warbler touching down in a city park, these animals’ stories extend far beyond the space where the human city-dweller encounters them. In this Spotlight essay, I engage with this call for political ecologies of urbanization and animals to include more encompassing spatial processes, but also extend it temporally to include deeper historical relations. Lucy and Gally are just two of the most recent living bison who have been transported from interior regions of North America into cities by white conservationists, zoo authorities, and city park patrons. In my research about the historical geography of animals in New York City’s Central Park, I have traced other living bison – called buffalo by Indigenous nations who consider them kin – from the west to New York beginning in the 1860s.

In addition to following the journeys of other bison into eastern cities of the United States, we should look back further in time at the more-than-human relations at those urban centers’ establishment. In the nineteenth century, the growth of New York City prompted the creation of Central Park by urban elites and engendered changing practices of public animal display in the US cities. This urban growth was politically and economically entangled with longer histories of habitat loss, overland imperialism, and commodification of non-humans’ body parts. The Dutch began building New Amsterdam upon land long stewarded by the Lenape people, who practiced interdependent relations with deer, turkey, oysters, and others in a more-than-human community, before Dutch corporations enrolled Lenape as trappers for the trade in beaver pelts in the 1600s. Through war and disease, the Dutch and later the British killed and displaced the Lenape. Two centuries later, in the late 1850s, as the city grew from the southern tip of Manhattan, city leaders seized the land in the center of the island to establish Central Park beyond the line of dense urban growth. The Park displaced the city’s largest community of Black landowners along with communities of immigrant pastoralists, many of whom moved with their goats, geese, cows, and dogs to the edges of the island.

Manhattan’s economic and physical growth depended on the investments that residents and New York-based corporations made in far-flung spaces of commodified nature. Wealth from these ventures helped build the mansions that eventually lined Fifth Avenue on the Park’s east side, and the sprouting office buildings to the south. The Treasurer of the Central Park Commission, Andrew Haswell Green, wrote in 1862 that ‘the forests of the country with their magnificent beauties, the growth of centuries, are being swept away rapidly and wastefully, and the beasts and the birds that live in their shelter are becoming extinct for want of an intelligent appreciation of their value, both to the present and coming generations.’ Green and others believed that Central Park could help kindle the nature appreciation needed to spark conservation of the continent’s dwindling ‘beasts and birds’ by displaying such creatures in a zoological garden within the Park.

The kind of zoological garden that Green envisioned would take decades to establish in New York, but donors supplied the beasts and birds for a more modest collection almost immediately. At New York’s proximate edges, and in rings of influence spreading out at regional, continental, and global scales, physical and economic expansion also brought humans into contact with animals, from raccoons and bald eagles to sea turtles and coatimundi. These encounters at the many fronts of what is now sometimes called planetary urbanization supplied ‘specimens’ to represent their species for city-dwellers at the Central Park Menagerie. Bankers, generals, and diplomats, along with regular New Yorkers, sent animals to this facility at the southeastern corner of the Park.

The second bison to be displayed in the Central Park Menagerie was sent to New York by members of the Seventh US Cavalry from their base of operations in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas in 1868. (The first came from a white Missouri rancher in 1864.) The Seventh Cavalry dispatched the creature as its troops patrolled the Great Plains, executing the federal government’s plans to control and remove Indigenous communities such as the Cheyenne, Kiowa, Arapaho, Comanche, and Pawnee. Bison were both pawns and desired commodities in these plans. Corporations such as the American Fur Company had decades earlier enrolled Indigenous communities along with white hunters in the bison trade, decimating herds that constituted the basis of tribes’ spirituality and livelihoods and had once numbered in the tens of millions. The US Army protected settlers and corporations, such as the Union Pacific Railroad, from Indigenous tribes determined to maintain their place on the Plains. Treaties promised to uphold Native land claims ‘so long as the buffalo may range thereon in such numbers as to justify the chase,’ but far from protecting the herds, the Army encouraged bison hunting even as herds dwindled. Environmental historian Andrew Isenberg writes of continued slaughter into the 1870s and 80s, when bison hides formed ‘the sinews of nineteenth-century industrial production.’ Shipped to eastern cities and company towns, the hides were cut into strips to make heavy belts that would turn gears and wheels in all manner of mills, grinding flour, cutting timber, and weaving textiles. Firms based in New York both underwrote and profited from the destruction of the bison, and revenues helped build the city growing around the Park.

While corporations built the expanding nation’s manufacturing apparatus with the hides of its dismembered fellows, the live bison who arrived in Manhattan in 1868, and others after it, grazed on Central Park’s lawns within a moveable paddock. Other donated animals, including white-tailed deer, toured the greens in their own paddocks. Green brought in Kerry cows from his own family farm in Massachusetts. Southdown sheep mowed the grass under the watchful eye of a shepherd on city payroll. Meanwhile, just west of the intersection of Fifth Avenue and 64th Street, spectators laughed at capering monkeys and felt twinges of regret to see bald eagles strain against their cages.

As the construction of Manhattan began to envelope Central Park, Green continued to envision the perpetual urbanization of New York’s hinterlands, and ways of displaying and conserving American animals and ‘beauties’ of nature befitting the expanded city. After serving on the Park board, Green went on to plan Greater New York – the consolidation of Manhattan with surrounding towns that became boroughs. Beginning in 1895, he also served as the first president of the New York Zoological Society, which promoted bison breeding programs. The Zoological Society created the zoological park in the Bronx, now known as the Bronx Zoo.

William Temple Hornaday (known also for lambasting immigrants and Indigenous people for wildlife destruction and his role in displaying an African tribal man, Ota Benga), served as the Bronx Zoo’s first director. Hornaday deemed destruction of wildlife and development of the American West an inevitability. He envisioned that elite white conservationists in eastern cities would preserve wildlife in institutions like the Bronx Zoo while the US government dispossessed tribes of homelands and promoted settlement. Hornaday had already helped introduce bison to Washington, DC – seat of the federal government that deployed armies and settlers to the Plains – where they grazed on the National Mall before moving to the zoo in Rock Creek Park in 1891.

For white conservationists, buffalo ‘symbolized what once had been,’ as geographer Lindsey Schneider has observed. In the first decades of the twentieth century, New York Zoological Society members and the American Bison Society celebrated the successful release of bison from their breeding program into ranges across the northern plains. Of course, some tribes had already been engaged in buffalo conservation, protecting kernels of herds that seeded today’s returning populations and that continue to renew and empower Indigenous communities. As Schneider notes, the ranges where Hornaday and colleagues released the bison was gained through ‘enclosure and privatization’ of what had been Native land.

Standing before Lucy and Gally, I see these individual creatures as well their connections to other spaces and times, and to their multi-species kin. Bison in a zoo, but equally, migratory birds in a forest patch, or family pets in an apartment: animals that inhabit cities also embody expansive present-day political ecologies and historical geographies. Even as urban economies devour habitat and convey commodified animals through vast chains of production and finance, city-based institutions promise various kinds of sanctuary for affected species. Indeed, parks, zoos, and other animal display and conservation organizations have promised city-based salvation for animals, in one form or another, for well over a century. Only by exploring the full geography of urbanization can we understand the entanglement of wildlife conservation with historical, political, and economic geographies of major cities such as New York and Washington, DC, and their own ties to settler colonialism and the building of modern states.

Dawn Biehler is Associate Professor of Geography and Environmental Systems at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. She is author of the book Pests in the City: Flies, Bedbugs, Cockroaches, and Rats (University of Washington Press, 2013), and is working on a book about the historical more-than-human geography of New York City’s Central Park. She also does research with community organizations in Baltimore, Maryland.