Happy Birthday, National Zoo!


Bison relaxing in their pen in front of the Smithsonian Castle in the 1880s. (Photo source: Smithsonian Archives) Prior to the creation of the National Zoo along Rock Creek, the Smithsonian kept a large collection of animals in pens and cages on the National Mall. Washingtonians flocked to see the motley collection. (Photo source: Smithsonian Archives)
On this day in 1889, President Grover Cleveland signed legislation establishing a zoological park along Rock Creek in Northwest Washington “for the advancement of science and the instruction and recreation of the people.”[1] But, of course, the backstory began years before.

In the 1880s, the Smithsonian had an extensive collection of animal skins and pelts. Chief taxidermist W.T. Hornaday thought that better animal representations could be created if taxidermists studied the habits and forms of live animals. And so, he began seeking live specimens for the museum.[2]

Donations started rolling in and Hornaday acquired other animals on research trips to the West. To house its new pets, the Smithsonian built several small wooden houses and grazing pens behind the National Museum (now the Arts and Industries building) on the National Mall. By 1888 the collection had grown to almost 200 different species including a jaguar, grizzly bear, lynx and buffalo.[3]

Buffalo grazing on the Mall! Can you picture it?

Curious Washingtonians came to see the assemblage in droves. As the Washington Post noted, “For weeks in succession the daily throng has been so great as to make it a matter of difficulty to pass through the building, or even to perform necessary work in connection with the care of the animals.”[4]

The care of the animals was definitely a concern. The Mall was a great place for a museum, but not such a good place to keep live animals. In the exhibit’s first few years, the museum had lost several animals, including a buffalo calf, which apparently died after consuming too much lush green D.C. clover,[5] and an antelope that was killed trying to escape its holding pen when spooked by a visitor’s snapping dog.[6]

Smithsonian officials turned their eyes toward a permanent arrangement for their new Department of Living Animals. Senator James Beck of Kentucky took up the cause and introduced a bill allocating funds to establish a more permanent zoo along Rock Creek. After some debate, a revised version of the bill was passed by the Senate and House and President Grover Cleveland signed it into law on March 2, 1889. The National Zoo was born.


National Zoo planners survey lands near Rock Creek. (Photo source: Smithsonian Archives)The planners of the National Zoological Park surveying the site along Rock Creek. The group included landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted (third from left in the light suit) and William Hornaday (third from right) the zoo's first director, c.1890. (Photo source: Smithsonian Archives)


[1] “Our Living Animals. Nucleus of the Proposed National Zoological Garden,” Washington Post, 19 August 1888: 10.

[2] “Early Home of the Zoo,” Washington Post, 23 August 1897: 2.

[3] “Our Living Animals. Nucleus of the Proposed National Zoological Garden,” Washington Post, 19 August 1888: 10.

[4] “Our Living Animals. Nucleus of the Proposed National Zoological Garden,” Washington Post, 19 August 1888: 10.

[5] “Buffalo Dies in Clover,” Washington Post, 30 August 1886: 2.

[6] “Sunday at the ‘Zoo’,” Washington Post, 23 June 1889: 13.