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.
That's why Sanderson was skeptical when Stephen Sautner, a fellow employee at WCS, told him he'd seen evidence of a beaver during a walk along the river. It's probably just a muskrat, Sanderson thought. Muskrats are more tolerant of stressful city life. But when Sautner and he climbed around a chain-link fence separating the river from one of the zoo's parking lots, they found José's lodge right where Sautner had said it was. When they returned a couple of weeks later, they ran into José himself.
"It was just getting dark," Sanderson said. "We were standing on the riverbank shooting the breeze, when all of a sudden we saw the beaver. He swam right up to us, then he started doing circles in the river. We backed up a little, and he did that beaver alarm call with his tail, slap, slap against the water. So we decided we'd better take off."
The beaver's return to the Big Apple was hailed as a victory by conservationists and volunteers who'd spent more than three decades restoring the health of the Bronx River, once a dumping ground for abandoned cars and trash. José was named in honor of José E. Serrano, the congressman from the Bronx who'd pushed through more than $15 million in federal funds over the years to support the river cleanup.
For Sanderson, José's story meant something more. For almost a decade he has led a project at WCS to envision as precisely as possible what the island of Manhattan might have looked like before the city took root. The Mannahatta Project, as it's called (after the Lenape people's name for "island of many hills"), is an effort to turn back the clock to the afternoon of September 12, 1609, just before Henry Hudson and his crew sailed into New York Harbor and spotted the island. If people today could picture what a natural wonder Hudson had looked upon, Sanderson figured, maybe they'd fight harder to preserve other wild places. "I wanted people to fall in love with New York's original landscape," he said. "I wanted to show how great nature can be when it's working, with all its parts, in a place that people normally don't think of as having any nature at all."