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

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

William 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.

One of the first things Goode did was direct Hornaday to collect specimens of American mammals, birds, and reptiles. Travelling west through the Dakotas and the Montana and Washington territories, Hornaday bought or was given a cinnamon bear, a white-tailed deer, a Columbia black-tailed deer, five prairie dogs, a Cross fox, a mule deer, two badgers, a red fox, and two spotted lynx.

At the beginning, the grandly designated "Department of Living Animals of the National Museum" was a ramshackle affair, a collection of small wire pens and paddocks on the edge of the broad pedestrian walkway known as the "national mall." The 15 animals Hornaday had collected on his rail trip out west were the sum total of its animal population. But that changed rapidly.

From the very start, the public was fascinated by the zoo, and people began showing up in great numbers. One of the first benefactors of the Department of Living Animals, in fact, was the president of the United States, Grover Cleveland. Cleveland had been given a golden eagle as a Christmas present, and rather than return it to the sender, as was customary, he gave it to Hornaday for the new zoo. A benefactor in Texas contributed two black bears and a jaguar. Then Hornaday bought a grizzly bear cub from the Crow Indian Reservation in Montana. The rarest and most wonderful new residents were four American bison, contributed by a rancher in Nebraska. In December 1887, Hornaday wrote Professor Goode a letter to propose formally that the institution begin attempting to preserve the buffalo by breeding them in captivity.

By the early spring of 1888, the zoo had grown from 15 to 172 animals. In fact, it was bursting at the seams, in need of space, accommodations, funding, and staff. A bill for an enabling act was drafted and introduced in the Senate on May 2, 1888. It called for the then-extravagant sum of $200,000 to buy 166 acres of Rock Creek Park. Hornaday made a detailed relief map of the proposed zoo, complete with tiny trees and enclosures for the animals.

Hornaday tucked his relief map under his arm when he went to testify before the House Committee on Appropriations. Most of the discussion that followed Hornaday's presentation was positive, but several representatives argued that the proposed zoo would be too expensive and benefit only the people of Washington. One House member, Mississippi Democrat Thomas Stockdale, told a reporter that the zoo "does not sound like republicanism. It echoes like royalty." When it came to a vote, the zoo bill was voted down, by a vote of 36 in favor, 56 against, with one abstention.

Before the opening of the next session, in December of 1888, "Buffalo Bill" Cody made an extravagant offer: he wanted to give the Department of Living Animals 18 more buffalo, the third-largest captive herd in existence. But Hornaday had to turn Cody down because there was simply not enough room. It was a kind of melancholy public relations coup, which Hornaday used to maximum advantage in the press.

For the next session of Congress, a bill for the establishment of a zoological park sailed through the House on a vote of 131 to 98. On July 4, 1889, a Zoological Park Commission was created and Hornaday got the happy task of going down to Rock Creek Park on a series of sunny afternoons to stake out the boundaries of the hoped-for zoo. But the fights and disputes over the zoo's border began almost immediately. The theater of war in the battle to save the animals had shifted from the Montana Territory to the halls of Congress, where the enemies were mind-bogglingly complicated power politics and hidden agendas of all kinds. Even after Hornaday finally secured title to the last piece of property, he still needed to secure funding for the project.

Now a bit more seasoned in Washington power politics, Hornaday went back to Congress to ask for $92,000 to cover the cost of the current year's operations. It was a startling sum, and it came up against the scowling countenance of Joseph "Uncle Joe" Cannon, one of the craftiest and most dominating congressmen ever to serve as Speaker of the House. Hornaday argued his case once again for a national zoo to preserve the bison, to assuage the nation's guilt at their near-extermination, and to educate the public. When he was done, he took questions from the congressmen.

After an hour of sparring, he felt that he had defended his case adequately. He looked over at Uncle Joe Cannon sitting in his gaudy chair at the head of the chamber. Cannon uncrossed his legs and seemed to look sourly at the carpet.

"Wel-l," Cannon said, in disgust, "I suppose we'll have to pass this damned bill!" And they did.

Adapted from Stefan Bechtel's Mr Hornaday's War: How a Peculiar Victorian Zookeeper Waged a Lonely Crusade for Wildlife That Changed the World (Beacon Press, 2012).