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William Temple Hornaday

Visionary of the National Zoo

This article appeared in the Smithsonian News Service in February 1989. Michael Robinson retired as Zoo Director in 2000.

Hornaday leading a bison calf by a leash
Hornaday, chief taxidermist for the Smithsonian Institution, leads a bison calf by a leash in this 1889 photo.

For a "little try-out zoo," it was a hit by any measure. In 1887, several thousand people a day crowded in behind the Smithsonian's "Castle" Building in Washington, DC, to look at an exhibit of a bear, an eagle, badgers, bison and other live animals, most collected from the American West.

William Temple Hornaday, the imaginative taxidermist who created this exhibit, was especially happy about its popularity. His future at the Smithsonian depended on his ability to convince the U.S. Congress to pass legislation creating a full-fledged National Zoological Park.

After five years of planning and lobbying, Hornaday's hard work paid off. On March 2, 1889, President Grover Cleveland signed a bill passed by both Houses that officially established the National Zoo and allocated funds for the purchase of land. The sponsor of the bill, Sen. James Beck of Kentucky, attached a far-sighted mandate to the legislation. The Zoo, he wrote, was to operate "for the advancement of science, the instruction and recreation of the people." A year after it was established, Congress made the Zoo a bureau of the Smithsonian Institution.

This year [1989], the National Zoo celebrates its centennial. In many ways, today's Zoo officials say, that mandate and Hornaday's extraordinary vision live on at the Zoo and guide its future. Research by staff and visiting scientists contributes to the advancement of science, while innovative planning and exhibits educate and entertain park visitors.

"Hornaday envisioned a Zoological Park that would give visitors a real sense of an animal's behavior and natural habitat," Dr. Michael Robinson, director of the National Zoo, says. "It's almost uncanny that our vision for the future of this zoo is a logical extension of Hornaday's dream—the 'BioPark' concept."

The BioPark concept, Robinson explains, is his idea for zoo exhibits that dramatically reveal whole ecosystems—communities of plants and animals living in harmony with their environments. Conventional zoo exhibits often show isolated species in settings far different from the animals' natural habitats and relegate plants to a decorative "supporting role." In the real world, Robinson says, plants and animals are absolutely interdependent.

Interestingly, a similar idea brought Hornaday to the attention of Smithsonian officials in the early 1880s. In Saratoga Springs, NY, he had created a life-like display of orang utans in a realistic jungle setting. The prestigious American Association for the Advancement of Science was one of many groups to laud Hornaday's creativity and innovation.

Impressed by Hornaday's achievements, the Smithsonian's G. Brown Goode, director of the U.S. National Museum, hired the trailblazer as the museum's chief taxidermist in 1882. After a period of time collecting rapidly disappearing bison in the West, Hornaday wrote then Secretary Spencer Fullerton Baird proposing the establishment of a National Zoological Park, a place where rare North American species, such as the bison, could be propagated and protected.

Today's National Zoo has become one of the country's leading research centers for the breeding and protection of rare and endangered species from all over the world. Reproductive physiologists, veterinarians and other biologists there, for example, have developed procedures for artificial insemination, surrogate parenting and even frozen storage of exotic animal sperm, ova and embryos. For some endangered species, Robinson says, this work represents a "last hope" in their fall towards extinction.

Hornaday's legacy began in 1854 when he was born in Plainfield, Ind. He spent much of his youth on a family farm in Iowa, where perhaps he developed his love of nature. As a young man, he attended college for two years at Oskaloosa College and Iowa State University. He left school in 1873 and went to work for a biological specimen-collecting company as an apprentice taxidermist.

The young Hornaday excelled in his work and soon became a highly regarded collector of wild animals. He was the first person to document the presence of crocodiles in Florida, and later collecting expeditions took him to such far-flung locales as India, Ceylon and Borneo. In 1886, he published a popular account of his travels, Two Years in the Jungle.

Hornaday was a prolific writer over the course of his life. He authored 15 books and numerous articles about wildlife and the need for conservation. A number of early wildlife protection laws in the United States were enacted thanks to Hornaday's passion. "It is the duty of every good citizen," he declared, "to promote the protection of forests and wildlife."

The fate of the American Bison seemed to stir Hornaday most deeply, perhaps because he had himself witnessed the systematic slaughter of this species in the West. His 1889 book, The Extermination of the American Bison, established him as a prominent defender of these animals. Later in his career, he founded the National Bison Society and promoted the establishment of the Wichita, Kan., and Montana National Bison Ranges.

Bison were among the animals under Hornaday's care when he was first assigned to the Department of Living Animals at the Smithsonian's National Museum. Oddly enough, one purpose of this department was to keep living animals as models for the museum's taxidermists, ensuring more life-like exhibits. In fact, taxidermists cared for all of the animals in this precursor to the Zoo until Hornaday hired the first keeper in 1887.

After the official establishment of the Zoo in 1889, Hornaday oversaw the purchase and surveying of 166 acres of land along Rock Creek for what became the National Zoo in Washington, DC. Soon, however, Hornaday found himself in strong disagreement over the design of the Zoo with Baird's successor, Smithsonian Secretary Samuel Pierpont Langley. Unable to settle their differences, Hornaday resigned in 1890. Unstoppable, though, he went on to become the founding director of the New York Zoological Society in 1896, a position he held for the next 30 years.

Bison still live at the National Zoo, a fitting tribute to Hornaday's dedication to preserving wildlife for future generations. The bison share the National Zoo with about 500 other species. All are symbols of the Zoo's continued commitment to educating the public and preserving rare and endangered species.