Eagles and Prey

Eagles and Prey

Animals in Central Park

Central Park was designed to give visitors a glimpse of peaceful, pastoral countryside, not nature red in tooth and claw. But behind this gory sculpture is a grim joke.

For much of the 19th century, Manhattan was overrun with animals - and not French bulldogs on leashes. Since refrigeration didn’t exist, cattle by the hundreds of thousands were herded into the city and slaughtered here. Tens of thousands of horses pulled private carriages, public transportation , and working vehicles. The fertilizer used in Central Park to make grass and trees and flowers grow where only rocks had been – that was mostly tons of horse manure.

And there were other animals in New York. In 1865, the New York Times described a shantytown on what is now the posh Upper East Side:

Pigs, cows and goats ... take possession of the sidewalks with the most impudent nonchalance, repose on your front steps, rub open your gate ... browse on your shrubbery, and scare decent little children half out of their wits.

Until 1866, when the sanitation department was set up, “garbage collection” in New York was accomplished by roaming hogs, dogs, and goats. When construction of Central Park was begun in 1858, the goats treated the new plantings as a buffet. The Board of Commissioners noted that “unless some measures are immediately taken, their depredations will be great and not easily reparable.” At Olmsted’s suggestion, the Board offered $1 – about half a day’s wages - to anyone bringing a goat to the pound. Soon the only goats in the park were those pulling carriages for children.

This sculpture

Eagles and Prey, placed in 1863, was the second sculpture to be erected in Central Park. It originally stood at the north end of the Central Drive, where fashionable carriages would have pulled right up to it. Although it’s not in the spirit of pastoral calm, the thought of one fewer goat probably earned wry smiles from Olmsted and the Central Park Commissioners.

This piece was created by a French sculptor in 1850, making it the oldest sculpture in the Park, unless you count the Egyptian obelisk as a sculpture rather than architecture. However, Eagles and Prey wasn’t donated to the park until 1863, 4 years after the bust of Schiller was erected. The donor was Gordon W. Burnham, who gave the sculpture of Webster in 1876. A guide to Central Park published in 1864 described the sculpture with approval:

The fierce birds have carried their victim to a rock, and are exulting, after their carnivorous manner, over his carcass. The dark and heavy material is very well managed, and the effect of waving wings and clinging vulturine attitudes is rendered with much success.