Bison & The Zoo’s History

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How did bison become a part of the Smithsonian?

American bison have a unique history with the Smithsonian’s National Zoo. Along with a few other grazing animals, bison were among the first animals in the Smithsonian’s collection when President Grover Cleveland signed into law the creation of the National Zoological Park in 1889. Originally exhibited on the National Mall, the bison were relocated to the Zoo’s Rock Creek campus in 1891.

A second link between the National Zoo and American bison is William Temple Hornaday. Hornaday is a crucial figure in National Zoo history; he was the taxidermist who first envisioned the Zoo and lobbied to Congress to create an official National Zoological Park.

Before initiating this idea, Hornaday was one of several naturalists who helped collect bison from the American West as their population dwindled. Throughout his life, Hornaday was a champion for American bison. In addition to acting as the driving force for the creation of the National Zoo in 1889, that same year he penned the book The Extermination of the American Bison, a conservation-driven piece that aimed to defend the species. Hornaday was also the founder of the National Bison Society and promoted the creation of the National Bison Ranges in Montana and Kansas.

A Menagerie on the Mall

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For William Temple Hornaday, chief taxidermist at the Smithsonian, being personally confronted with the bison’s plight came as “a severe shock, as if by a blow on the head from a well-directed mallet. I awoke, dazed and stunned, to a sudden realization of the fact that the buffalo-hide hunters of the United States had practically finished their work.”

Hornaday’s awakening changed his life—and that of the nation’s capital—forever. The solution, he recalled later, came to him in an instant, “like a thief in the night.” Washington, he concluded, needed a zoo: a haven where bison and other vanishing species could survive and breed.

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Never one to hesitate, Hornaday promptly urged his employer to acquire “the nucleus of a herd of live buffaloes . . . the most striking and conspicuous species on this continent.” Doing so, he counseled, would “in a small measure, atone for the national disgrace that attaches to the heartless and senseless extermination of the species in a wild state.”

The Smithsonian agreed to give Hornaday a chance in 1887, naming him as head of the new Department of Living Animals and dispatching him to collect specimens in the West. He returned with 15 animals—all indigenous species—including deer, foxes, prairie dogs, badgers and lynx. Bison came a bit later, thanks to a donation from a Nebraska rancher.

A Vision for the National Zoo

Nothing highlighted the limits of the Mall zoo more than a gift Hornaday had to turn down. In December 1888, showman “Buffalo Bill” Cody offered the Smithsonian a herd of 18 bison. Hornaday declined with genuine regret—and made sure the whole city knew about it.

That missed opportunity, along with Hornaday’s dogged lobbying, helped spur Congress to pass a bill creating a national zoological park “for the advancement of science and the instruction and recreation of the people.” President Grover Cleveland signed it into law on March 2, 1889.

Next came two bison-sized challenges: finding a home for the zoo and getting Congress to pay for it. Hornaday dove into both with his usual brash zeal. He and Samuel Pierpont Langley, the new secretary of the Smithsonian, identified a site in Rock Creek Park. Then Langley watched, astonished, as Hornaday coaxed $92,000—a fortune at the time—out of Uncle Sam.

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Langley and Hornaday enlisted the country’s paramount landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmsted, to design the new zoo. Of course, Hornaday couldn’t resist offering his own visions. He pictured large, naturalistic enclosures, shaped by the contours of the landscape, which would give visitors a more holistic understanding of the interplay between animals and their environment.

“I have no intention of doing that,” Langley replied. What he did intend, he icily made clear, was to put Hornaday in his place. He unveiled a new organizational structure that demoted the bold young man. Enraged, Hornaday resigned. The Zoo went on without him, eventually growing into his vision. Hornaday, it can be imagined, would be pleased by the naturalistic exhibits that now dominate the park.

This content is drawn from the Jan/Feb 2014 issue of Smithsonian ZooGoer. Article: “In the Beginning, Bison.” Author: Peter Winkler, Editor, Smithsonian ZooGoer.

Who Was William Temple Hornaday?