The Peculiar Victorian Taxidermist Who Created the National Zoo

How an exotic game hunter collected live animals from throughout the United States and convinced Congress to give him a prime plot of land

hornaday-top.jpgWilliam Temple Hornaday with a baby bison in 1889 (Smithsonian Institution)

On the morning of May 6, 1886, an intense-looking young gentleman with a jet-black beard vaulted up the stairs of a westbound train at Washington's Union Station. He was a small man -- all of five foot eight in his stocking feet -- but lithe, compact, and powerfully built, like a predatory animal. He was wearing a new bowler hat, a slightly uncomfortable-looking tweed suit, and scuffed alpine walking boots. The young man's whole body seemed to follow the forward thrust of his chin as he mounted the stairs into the railway car.

The young man, whose name was William Temple Hornaday, was 32 years old. Born on a hardscrabble farm in Indiana, he'd risen to become chief taxidermist at the U.S. National Museum -- later, in 1911, part of the Smithsonian Institution -- when he was only 28 years old. He was considered one of the most masterful taxidermists in the country at a time when mounting skins for museums was considered the highest form of "nature art." As a hunter and tracker, he was fearless. In India, where more than eight hundred people had been killed and eaten by tigers in the single year 1878, he stalked an immense Bengal tiger into a bamboo thicket and shot it at 30 yards with such a small-bore rifle that it was practically a toy. Because of his deft artistic touch and his intimate acquaintance with living animals, Hornaday was able to bring a wildebeest or an African lion to life with an almost spooky realism.

Hornaday was in such a hurry now because his immediate superior at the museum, Dr. G. Brown Goode, had asked him a few months earlier to inventory the museum's specimen collection of the American bison. But when Hornaday peered into dim cabinets and specimen drawers, he could find only a few dusty old skins and skeletons. Hornaday had then undertaken a census of the bison in North America, writing to ranchers, hunters, army officers, and zookeepers. As the news came back, the true story of what had happened to the millions of bison became heartbreakingly apparent. Hornaday estimated that there were now fewer than eight hundred bison left on the face of the earth.

Hornaday stood there in Dr. Goode's office, watching as the old man's face fell. Then he lifted his eyes to Hornaday and said finally, "I dislike to be the means of killing any of those last bison, but since it is now utterly impossible to prevent their destruction we simply must take a large series of specimens, both for our own museum, and for other museums that sooner or later will want good specimens."

It was the Faustian bargain: to save some vestige of a vanishing species for future generations, a few specimens would need to be sacrificed and carefully preserved. When Hornaday begged Dr. Goode to allow him to mount a small exploratory expedition to the Montana Territory right away, Goode readily agreed.

Hornaday returned from the Montana Territory with a sense of desolation. He had seen how astoundingly fast it could happen: a noble beast like the American bison decimated from herds of 10 or 15 million, down to less than 1,000, in 20 years.

It was out of this abject despair that the idea first came to him. There should be a national zoological park in the nation's capital, a place where breeding pairs of bison and other vanishing species could make a final stand against extinction and where ordinary people could see them face to face. No one really knew if captive breeding had any reasonable chance of success, but the war for wildlife was going so badly Hornaday felt that he absolutely must try.

It was Hornaday's nature to be obstinate almost to the point of absurdity. As soon as he had the idea for the zoo, Hornaday sat down and wrote a letter to the secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, Professor Spencer Fullerton Baird, a man he liked and respected immensely. Unfortunately, Baird was quite ill, and only a couple of months after Hornaday sent his letter, Baird died. But Professor Goode took over until a permanent successor could be appointed, and in the fall of 1887, he and Hornaday "threw in together on the development of the idea [of the national zoo], and we worked like beavers."

Goode proposed that they start "a little tryout zoo" on the Smithsonian grounds to test the public's interest. In one stroke, Goode created a "Department of Living Animals" at the National Museum, with Hornaday as curator. Now, in addition to stuffing and mounting skins as realistically as possible, Hornaday would be providing food, water, and habitats for real, living animals on the mall in Washington.

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Stefan Bechtel is the author of 10 books, most recently Mr. Hornaday's War. His work has appeared in Esquire and the Washington Post, among other publications. 

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