“If you’ve been to all the New York zoos, you know the one animal that’s at all of them?” asked Lee Ehmke, director of the Minnesota Zoo. He was standing in the Central Park Zoo with a handful of other zoo officials, at the gala on Thursday for the Wildlife Conservation Society, the organization that runs most of the city’s zoos. We were on a patio overlooking the sea lion tank.
“Sea lions,” he said. “Active, social, vocal, cute, interesting. They interact well with people.”
“I’m assuming part of the reason she appears so friendly is she can’t see,” said Maureen, the wife of one zoo official, standing near the tank. She pointed out that a sea lion that had come near the edge and leaned over it, waving its head back and forth in a genial way, actually had only one eye—and that one was clouded by what appeared to be a cataract.
It was phase one of the gala, whose theme was “Elephants and Ivory,” the black-tie period, the period of sickly sweet blue cocktails with plastic pink elephant stirs. The sea lions were the party’s centerpiece—the courtyard was the main area of assembly, with a subsequent ring of tables, under tents, beyond it. Socialites (Alejandro Santo Domingo and his Sports Illustrated model squeeze Julie Henderson, Mary and Howard Phipps Jr., Topper Mortimer and Edith McBean) and other donors dotted the courtyard, occasionally dashing under one of the canopies as it stormed in intervals.
Most were animal lovers, some were more animal acquaintances. Frederick Koch, for example, brother of Charles and David, never really had a pet so much as he had a Wodehousian dilemma involving an African gray parrot that not only wouldn’t learn the swear words he tried to teach it, but frequently bit holes in his curtains.
“She didn’t like to be touched, she didn’t like to be spoken to,” Mr. Koch said, explaining that the frequently bored bird would amuse itself by shaking out its powdery white head feathers. “My maid was constantly complaining, ‘This bird has dandruff!’”
“Aren’t they easy to take care of, birds?” asked his escort, Margot Langenberg.
“Not when they cover the apartment with dandruff,” Mr. Koch rejoined. “And don’t like you. I eventually decided it was time to get rid of Paprika Caliente.” It transpired that P.C. passed her remaining days at the Koch homestead terrorizing the family dog.
After a brief feeding of the sea lions we flocked to our own dinners under the canopies with thunder and lighting resuming inches away. Our tablemate Jean Shafiroff, operating under the theory that lightening is drawn to metal, leaned in and advised us to touch the silverware only sparingly, adding that she was glad she’d opted for costume jewelry this evening. “I mean,” she indicated the dendriform centerpiece. “Here we are standing under a tree, right?”
The monitors surrounding the tables faded from images of elephants on the Serengeti to the evening’s speeches. Honoree Iain Douglas-Hamilton, founder and director of Save the Elephants, received a painting from Steve Sanderson, president of W.C.S., by Happy, the elephant “artist-in-residence at the Bronx Zoo.”
“Her aesthetic sensibility, always great, was heightened, I’m sure, by the mission of giving a painting to someone so committed to her and her kind,” Mr. Sanderson said.
Around the end of dinner, we wandered over to Sex and the City’s Kristin Davis to ask a very specific question. Turns out it can be confusing, having the same name as Eliot Spitzer’s madam, also Kristin Davis.
“I get this message from my stylist on my phone and it’s like, ‘Did you write a book that I don’t know about?’” the actress said. “‘How could you have written a book and I didn’t know!’ And I wrote back, ‘I don’t know what to say,’ because I hadn’t written a book.”
“It was her that had written the book.” she clarified.
It was around this time that phase two began. The thousand-dollar dinner seats gave way to the $200 after-party tickets, the black ties swapped for khakis and Nantucket reds. The older crowd hit the door, tucking the Preston Bailey-designed elephant-shape leaf centerpieces under their arms and explaining that they were going to shellac them at home, to prevent mold.
Co-chair Gillian Hearst Simonds, 28, stuck around later but was clearly ambivalent about the younger crowd, having her doubts that they were even remotely acquainted with the plight of the elephants. “When you host the event at someplace this cool a lot of people just come to be hang out,” she said, yelling at the corner of one of the dance floors.
“Love ’em, love ’em!” said Thayer Joyce, a young woman who works in finance, of elephants. “Totally have a boner for the elephants. And the giraffes.”
Before the late-night stupidity, though, we caught up the city’s public advocate Bill de Blasio as he lumbered down the aisle shaking hands after dessert. His favorite things to see at the Prospect Park Zoo, are, in fact, the sea lions. Had he noticed how weird their eyes were here?
“They have very weird eyes,” Mr. de Blasio said, answering generally. “There’s a lot of weird, mystical stuff going on there.”—Dan Duray