Before New York

When Henry Hudson first looked on Manhattan in 1609, what did he see?

Of all the visitors to New York City in recent years, one of the most surprising was a beaver named José. No one knows exactly where he came from. Speculation is he swam down the Bronx River from suburban Westchester County to the north. He just showed up one wintry morning in 2007 on a riverbank in the Bronx Zoo, where he gnawed down a few willow trees and built a lodge.

"If you'd asked me at the time what the chances were that there was a beaver in the Bronx, I'd have said zero," said Eric Sanderson, an ecologist at the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), headquartered at the Bronx Zoo. "There hasn't been a beaver in New York City in more than 200 years."

During the early 17th century, when the city was the Dutch village of New Amsterdam, beavers were widely hunted for their pelts, then fashionable in Europe. The fur trade grew into such a lucrative business that a pair of beavers earned a place on the city's official seal, where they remain today. The real animals vanished.

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