I came across this amazing story in Kara Arundel’s book Raising America’s Zoo, which is one of the best books I have read this year. Thanks to Kara for sharing this story about her father-in-law, and a huge thank-you to her for reviewing this post and providing scans of Nicky’s News and other fantastic images that accompany the piece.
When walking the grounds of the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in DC (SNZ), one animal that you will notice is sadly missing is the majestic giraffe. (The one remaining giraffe left in 2006 so that the zoo could start construction on the new, current elephant habitat.) Before 2006, however, the SNZ had a strong giraffe program, thanks in large part to the efforts of an eight-year-old boy. Yes, you read that correctly!
Let’s begin in 1935. . . .
The then director of SNZ, Dr. William Mann, was looking for animals to fill the zoo acreage in Rock Creek Park with newly acquired funds ($680,000) from the New Deal’s Public Works Administration. Mann had planned for a portion of the funds to build a large mammal house for elephants and giraffes, among other species. (The zoo already had elephants, but their housing, built in 1903, was a badly aging barn.) With funding procured and construction underway, Mann needed a plan to fill this new, exciting space with the main attractions.
So, who did Mann turn to for help? Congress? FDR? Meet budding journalist, eight-year-old Arthur “Nicky” Arundel.
In 1936, Nicky and a friend started their own neighborhood newsletter, Nicky’s News, from the Arundels’ Northwest DC home. They tackled neighborhood news (“Millers Visiting New York and Coming Home Soon”) and current events (“Madrid Is Bombed”) as well as adorable editorial pieces (“Adolf Hitler of Germany Is Dumb”).
In the first issue of Nicky’s News the boys wrote two editorials: the first one argued that school recesses should be longer. And the other: The National Zoo badly needed giraffes. (SNZ acquired two Nubian giraffes from Africa in 1926, but they both died a year later and were not replaced.) After all, Nicky argued, giraffes would prevent children from contracting tuberculosis: “Children get lots of fresh air at the zoo, and they would like to go there if the giraffes were there. Not so many children would die of tooberkulowsis if there were giraffes to look at” (Arundel, p. 19).
The adamant rallying cries for giraffes were frequent in Nicky’s News. The Arundels were friends with the Manns, so perhaps the zoo director would listen?
As a matter of fact, Nicky’s venture gained traction and the operation grew, gaining 60 subscribers in just eight weeks. Nicky’s little sister and more friends were added to the staff list. The newsletter was an impressive 8.5″ x 14″ (folded in half) typewritten four-page paper, complete with advertisements and hand-drawn illustrations.
Nicky took his job as Editor quite seriously, and as any legit beat reporter would do, he went on assignment. Through his father Russell’s connections as a former secretary of a senator, Nicky attended a historic Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in March 1937—a debate of FDR’s proposal to expand the number of Supreme Court justices from nine to fifteen (which was, obviously, ultimately rejected). Nicky, wearing an adorable Editor-in-Chief badge and a suit, drew many fans at the hearing, as he was interviewed by the press and photographed with U.S. senators. Eight senators even bought subscriptions. (Nicky smartly charged them 15 cents more then the normal 10-cent monthly rate!)
Six months after starting his campaign for giraffes, and a month after his Capitol Hill appearance, the Washington Post featured Nicky on the front page of the Sunday edition. Smartly taking advantage of his newfound fame, he and his staff started holding “press conferences” to address the issue. Next came calls for donations: “Nobody has sent $5,000 for these giraffes to Nicky’s News. Somebody send the money quick. Call the president up and ask him to send some money to Doctor Mann for these animals or your little boy might die of tuberkuloshus” (Arundel, p. 23).
The children of Washington want giraffes for the zoo. The new building is ready but giraffes are still in Africa. Dr. Mann is in Sumatra and can get these giraffes if someone can send him the money. Every boy and girl in Washington should telephone the district Comishioners and ask about these giraffes. The Japanese children have giraffes. So do German and French children. Are they better than we are?
—Nicky Arundel, Nicky’s News, 1937
Nicky certainly had Congress’s attention. In an interview with journalist Lynn Sherr in 1996, Arundel explained, “Some congressman picked up the paper on his way to work and read the editorial. They then slipped in an appropriation to fund the purchase on some bill” (Sherr, p. 146). Huzzah!
Beginning on January 12, 1937—also Nicky’s ninth birthday—Dr. Mann, accompanied by his wife Lucile, led a nine-month sea expedition funded by the National Geographic Society to procure animals for the zoo. Covering Asia, the Dutch East Indies, and Africa, as Kara Arundel points out in her book, this 3,000 mile trip involved “the largest and most unusual assortment of live animals that had ever traveled to this country in one shipment” (p. 23). Leaving America with 26 wild animals (raccoons, black bears, alligators, etc.) to exchange for others to bring back, Mann and his expedition returned via cargo boat with nearly 900 (!) animals—birds, snakes, tiger and bear cubs, various primates, etc. (In her diary Lucile Mann included a fascinating inventory of all the animals procured throughout the trip.) Included in that haul, and to Nicky’s extreme delight, were not two, which he had campaigned for, but four Nubian giraffes—two males and two females. Acquired from Sudan on the return trip, the giraffes made a harrowing 50-day sea journey back to the United States in individual wooden, padded crates. After reaching New York on September 27, Lucile Mann writes:
There was considerable difficulty in getting the giraffes off the pier. The Sudan government had shipped them to us in 11-foot crates, and they could not get through the doors from the wharf out to the street. All that could be done was to saw them down, then and there, and the giraffes rode through the streets of Staten Island, New York, and over to Athenia with no tops to their cages at all—and it is a chilly day. Later we learned that when they got to the quarantine station, the crates would not go into the barns there. Jennifer, in desperation, said, “Well, I think the giraffes are pretty tame. Let’s lead them in.” And that was what we had to do.
The giraffes remained there in quarantine, but the rest of the animals left for DC via express train. That had to have been a true crazy train!
When the giraffes finally arrived at the National Zoo, on October 27, Mann invited the Arundels to meet the new prized possessions. The director even asked an exuberant Nicky to pick one to carry his name. There were no reports of tuberculosis among the children that day!
THE GIRAFFES ARE ALL WELL. THEY LIKE THEIR NEW HOME. DOCTOR MANN IS GOOD TO THEM. End of Bulletin.
—Nicky Arundel, Nicky’s News, 1937
Nicky’s successful campaign gained him more interviews (including with National Geographic magazine) across the city and fueled his ambition to lobby for more zoo improvements. His next focus was replacing the zoo’s restaurant with a larger, better one, again throwing in the tuberculosis argument, among many others! A new one was built three years later.
The two pairs of giraffes ultimately had a dozen calves. Nicky the giraffe lived at the zoo until his death in December 1945.
Nick continued to be heavily involved with the National Zoo throughout his life. In 1955 he chaperoned two baby gorillas from the Congo to the National Zoo. (This event is the focus of Kara Arundel’s fantastic book, Raising America’s Zoo, which is available on her website and as an ebook on Amazon.) Nick was also an inaugural board member of the Friends of the National Zoo and a former president.
It is up in the air as to whether giraffes will make a return to the SNZ, but perhaps we need to revitalize Nicky’s News to generate support! In the meantime, you can head 50 miles north to the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore to view these amazing creatures.
Arundel, Kara. Raising America’s Zoo: How Two Wild Gorillas Helped Transform the National Zoo. Herndon, VA: Mascot Books, 2017.
Mann, Lucile. Diary: Far East Trip, January 12, 1937–September 27, 1937. Smithsonian Institution Archives, Accession No. SIA RU007293 (https://www.si.edu/object/fbr_item_MODSI41)
Obituary of Arthur “Nick” Arundel, Washington Post, February 8, 2011 (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2011/02/08/AR2011020806127.html)
Sherr, Lynn. Tall Blondes: A Book About Giraffes. Kansas City, MO: Andrews McMeel Publishing, 1997.
Smithsonian Institution. Annual Report of the Board of Regents, 1958. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1959.