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Big Brown Joe Plugs the Pipe

Old Scrooge wasn’t the only beaver to bedevil the zookeepers along the Bronx River: he was preceded in his role of chief troublemaker by Big Brown Joe.

By the beginning of the 1900s American Beavers had become scarce enough in the wild to qualify as zoo exhibits for people who otherwise would never get to see such an historic animal.While plans were underway to reintroduce beavers into parts of New York State, the newly established Bronx Zoo set up its own model beaver pond alongside the Bronx River.Located near the bear den, the pond used the flow of a now vanished stream that ran to the river through the middle of the Zoo.In the spring of 1903 seven beavers from the lower Rio Grande were brought in to become the first beavers to inhabit the Bronx in over a century.

At first these beavers were perfect exhibits.Though normally nocturnal creatures, the beavers obligingly carried out their activities during daylight, delighting the throngs of children and curious adults who came to see them.

One in particular, though, named Big Brown Joe, emerged as a beaver ringleader, and engaged in a running battle of wits with the zookeepers.The issue was the water level in the pond.The zoo installed a drain pipe to keep the water at a regulated level, but Big Brown Joe, with millions of years’ collective experience behind him, had other ideas, and repeatedly plugged up the drain pipe to raise the water to his satisfaction.Annoyed at the overflowing pond, the zookeepers would time and again laboriously clear the obstruction, only to have Big Brown Joe’s pipe-plugging team stop it up again a couple of days later.

Big Brown Joe’s busy beavers would not be the end of the Zoo’s problems.Beavers would return again to the Bronx River in a mass breakout in 1921, a tale perhaps best told another day.

– Stephen Paul DeVillo

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The Bronx River Alliance is a coordinated voice for the river that works in partnership to protect, improve and restore the Bronx River corridor so that it can be a healthy ecological, recreational, resource for the communities through which it flows.

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