Although this might be a known story among DC zoo enthusiasts, I would be a horrible zoo history blogger if I didn’t recount the story of founding of the National Zoo. Enjoy! —KK
As you walk down the main path of the Smithsonian’s National Zoo, before you reach the popular giant panda habitats you will discover somewhat of a surprise: two American bison—Wilma and Zora. Although they might be a better fit on the American Trail, they indeed deserve this more prominent habitat; this is where they lived more than a century ago when the zoo originally opened. In fact, this species is a major reason the zoo even exists at all.
When William Temple Hornaday, a taxidermist and avid big game hunter (and by big game hunter I mean at disturbing levels by today’s standards), was appointed the Chief Taxidermist at the United States National Museum at the Smithsonian Institution in 1882, he had a vision to create an epic lifelike display of taxidermied animals. He was adamant that American bison should have a prominent place in his exhibit—and the display of which he would become most proud.
To include a vanishing American icon in his exhibit, in the spring and again in the fall of 1886, Hornaday led a Smithsonian hunting expedition to Montana with the purpose of bringing back specimens of bison “for the sake of science and to raise public awareness through the exhibition of these ‘most valuable and interesting American mammals’” (Andrei, p. 109). After all, bison populations were rapidly declining due to what Hornaday called a result of the “advance of civilization”—extreme overhunting by humans and lack of government regulations to protect them. Hornaday wanted to educate the public about this animal before it disappeared forever.
Although many of the herds of bison had disappeared by 1886, Hornaday eventually brought back his goal of twenty-five bison for his exhibit, including a live calf that had been abandoned by its mother. In a letter penned from Montana, Hornaday wrote to Spencer F. Baird, Secretary of the Smithsonian, “I think we can say without boasting that we have by long odds the finest and most complete series of buffalo skins ever collected for a museum, and also the richest collection of skeletons and skulls.”
It turns out that his experiences out West ended Hornaday’s big game hunting days. He was truly appalled by numbers of slaughtered bison and skeletal remains strewn throughout the prairie. Having a sort of conversion experience, he vowed to help save the species from total extinction and dedicated himself to conservation in general for the rest of his life. In fact, scholars argue that his “The Extermination of the American Bison,” a 179-page, extremely well-researched section of the Smithsonian Institution’s Annual Report (1889), was one of the first important treatises of the American wildlife conservation movement. “While John Muir—the famed American naturalist—was arguing for the preservation of natural habitats, such as the Yosemite National Park that was established in 1890, Hornaday recognized that the threat of extinction faced by species such as the bison was far more imminent” (Andrei, p. 112).
The wild buffalo is practically gone forever, and in a few more years, when the whitened bones of the last bleaching skeleton shall have been picked up and shipped East for commercial uses, nothing will remain of him save his old well-worn trails along the water-courses, a few museum specimens, and regret for his fate.
—William T. Hornaday, preface to “The Extermination of the American Bison,” 1889
Hornaday’s ultimate taxadermic masterpiece, titled The Buffalo Group exhibit, became a very popular attraction in DC. It comprised six specimens posed among a natural-looking scenery (including real grass and Montana dirt) in a 16′ x 12′ x 10′ mahogany case. It opened to the public on March 10, 1888, and continued to be on display for another seventy years, first at the National Museum building (the current Arts and Industries Building) and then moving across the Mall to the current National Museum of Natural History. Hanna Rose Shell emphasized the importance of the exhibit: “The Buffalo Group quickly achieved acclaim as a symbol of the early conservation movement and as an outstanding example of the new school of taxidermy of the 1880s and 1890s. Scientists as well as laypeople recognized that the group exhibit, with its suggestion of habitat, was innovative both in method and effect.” (The exhibit was reassembled, restored, and put back on display in 1996 at the Museum of the Northern Great Plains in Fort Benton, Montana.)
The live baby bison proved even more popular than the museum exhibit. Housed behind the Smithsonian Castle on the National Mall in the summer of 1886, Sandy the calf became an extremely popular attraction and sparked Hornaday’s desire to create a National Zoo. As a first step, he set out to create a Department of Living Animals at the Smithsonian and bring more bison (as well as other living species) to DC.
In October 1887, Director of the National Museum George Brown Goode accepted Hornaday’s proposal of a living animals department, but on a trial basis. The justification: it would give the museum taxidermists an opportunity to observe the species in their living state to improve their museum displays. Hornaday was named curator of the department.
Now it was time to start collecting animals for this live display, and thus time to head back West on a collecting expedition. In October the expedition headed west through Minnesota, the Dakotas, the territories of Montana, Wyoming, Washington, Utah, and Oregon, Hornaday and his team collected a total of 17 animals—deer, bears, foxes, lynx, eagles, prairie dogs, and other animals (Annual Report 1889, p. 214). Special freight cars were arranged to help with collection and return of the animals to DC. After a temporary wooden building was erected south of the National Museum, the collection went on public display on December 31, 1887. Hornaday noted that “It immediately became quite popular with the public. Many valuable gifts were offered and accepted…. Among the earlier gifts were an unusually large jaguar [from Eagle Pass, Texas] and two black bears [from El Paso, Texas]” (Annual Report 1889, p. 214).
Hornaday’s most prized acquisition was a pair of bison from Nebraska, and he wasted no time in pleading to the public to visit this vanishing species: “The whole movement has been prompted by the fearful rapidity with which game is being killed in the West and in the absolute certainty that in a few years many of the representative American animals will be entirely extinct,” he told the Washington Evening Star (Andrei, p. 111).
The “mini zoo” was not only extremely popular, but it was also growing quickly in size. By the end of January 1888 it had 58 specimens of mammals and birds and by April the collection had grown to 172 animals, including six bison. It was clearly outgrowing its space on the Mall, and there was also more demand for labor and supplies in caring for the animals. (W. C. Weeden was appointed the first keeper of animals and another was shortly added to the staff.) In the Smithsonian Annual Report, Hornaday expressed hope that the next session of Congress would hear his pleas and appropriate funds to purchase land for the growing animal collection. “The many hundreds of eager visitors who daily crowd our menagerie building to the point of positive discomfort, and the numerous gifts which come to us unsought, have led Senator J. B. Beck to introduce a bill for ‘the establishment of a zoological park in the District of Columbia for the advancement of science, and the instruction and recreation of the people’” (Annual Report 1889, p. 218). These animals needed a better home, in a more natural environment.
The National Zoological Park was officially created by an act of Congress on March 2, 1889. The bill, signed by President Grover Cleveland, allocated the funds to purchase 166 acres in Rock Creek Park in northwest Washington. Hornaday became the founding superintendent. In May 1890, the Smithsonian’s Department of Living Animals officially became the National Zoological Park. Half of the operating funds for the zoo were allocated by the federal government, with the other half coming from the city. The Board of Commissioners was authorized to utilize the funds, acquire and exchange specimens, accept gifts, and to generally oversee zoo operations.
The famous landscape architect William Law Olmstead consulted on the design of the park, however the Smithsonian notes that many of his suggestions were ignored due to lack of funds. The first building on zoo grounds was the buffalo and elk barn, completed in 1891, which the Smithsonian called a glorified log cabin. The first inhabitants of the zoo were the 185 animals under the direct care of Hornaday. The first animals, two male Indian elephants and former circus performers, Dunk and Gold Dust, were brought to the zoo grounds for the grand opening on April 30, 1891, and in June 1891 the first group of animals at the National Mall were transferred to the new park. Among these animals were bison, a grizzly bear cub, a black bear, woodchucks, a panther, a bald eagle, turkey vultures, and black snakes, which were all originally acquired to be used as Hornaday’s taxidermy models. (Previously, those not killed and preserved for the museum collection had been transferred to the Philadelphia Zoo.) Thousands greeted the animals in their new home on opening day alone.
However, Hornaday and the new Secretary of the Smithsonian, Samuel P. Langley, had differing opinions as to what Hornaday’s role should entail at the zoo. Hornaday wanted a larger part in defining the goals and direction of the zoo, but after continued frustrations, Hornaday resigned in June 1890.
In 1896, he became the director of the New York Zoological Society’s new Bronx Zoo, where he remained for thirty years. Due to his conservation efforts, by 1903 there were forty bison on the Bronx Zoo’s grounds. In 1905, with the help of Theodore Roosevelt, he founded the American Bison Society to continue to help save the species from extinction.
Thanks in large part to Hornaday’s efforts, the bison made a major comeback throughout the 1900s. Currently, the IUCN still considers the species “near threatened,” with population estimates at about 15,000 to 20,000 in the wild.
Not only are bison some of the first animals at the zoo, they are also one of its newest exhibits. In 2014, the National Zoo brought back the species as part of the 125th anniversary celebration after a decade-long absence. Two young females, Wilma and Zora, were welcomed to their current habitat from where it all began with Hornaday’s vision, in Montana.
The next time you stroll down the main walkway at SNZ, say hello to Wilma and Zora, and thank their species for the existence of the zoological park we enjoy so much!
Fun Fact: Students at two local universities, Howard and Gallaudet, were asked to name the current bison. (Both schools have a bison as their mascot.) Howard students named Zora in honor of Zora Neale Hurston, a fellow alum and acclaimed author, poet, and civil rights activist. The Gallaudet students named Wilma in honor of alumnus Wilma Newhoudt-Druchen, the first deaf woman elected to serve in South Africa’s parliament.
On March 3, 2020, the National Zoo announced that in the process of being transferred to another zoo, Zora accidentally broke her leg and had to be humanely euthanized. Wilma is now living at her new home. The zoo plans on bringing in two younger bison at a later date.
Andrei, Mary Anne. “The Accidental Conservationist: William T. Hornaday, the Smithsonian Bison Expeditions and the US National Zoo.” Endeavour 29:3 (September 2005), 109–113. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.endeavour.2005.05.002
Annual Report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution for the Year Ending June 30, 1888. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1890. Available at https://hdl.handle.net/2027/uc1.a0008314593 (includes a complete list of animal acquisitions from late 1887 to June 1888, pp. 220–222)
Annual Report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution for the Year Ending June 30, 1889. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1891. Available at https://hdl.handle.net/2027/osu.32435069558229
Arundel, Kara. Raising America’s Zoo: How Two Wild Gorillas Helped Transform the National Zoo. Herndon, VA: Mascot Books, 2017.
Coffman, Doug. Reflecting the Sublime: The Rebirth of an American Icon. Fort Benton, MT: The River & Plains Society, 2013.
Hornaday, William T. “The Extermination of the American Bison.” From the Report of the National Museum, 1886–1887, pp. 369–548, 1889. Available at http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/17748
Kutner, Max. “The Historic Return of the American Bison.” Smithsonian Magazine, August 2014. Available at https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/return-american-bison-180952488/
Shell, Hannah Rose. “Last of the Wild Buffalo.” Smithsonian Magazine, February 2000. Available at https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/last-of-the-wild-buffalo-176524106/
Smithsonian Institution Archives. Historical Note to National Zoological Park Records Collection, 1887–1966. Available at https://siarchives.si.edu/collections/siris_arc_216681
Smithsonian Institution Archives. National Zoological Park History Overview. Available at https://siarchives.si.edu/history/national-zoological-park
Smithsonian’s National Zoo. American Bison Fact Sheet. Available at https://nationalzoo.si.edu/animals/american-bison