X
An animated banner with twinkling lights, animal silhouettes and text that says ZooLights, powered by Pepco. Free Admission. Nov. 23-Jan. 1
Share this page:

8 Historic Photos of the Zoo to Celebrate Its 130th Anniversary

The Smithsonian’s National Zoo opened its doors in 1891. To celebrate its 130th anniversary, look back at how the Zoo has evolved through the years – from just 15 species on the National Mall to a sprawling Zoo campus in Rock Creek Park and a companion facility in Front Royal, Virginia.

William Temple Hornaday, the first head of the Smithsonian’s Department of Living Animals, standing with a bison calf in 1886. Smithsonian Institution Archives. Image #SA-815 

In 1886, the Smithsonian’s chief taxidermist, William Temple Hornaday, took a trip to the western U.S. and was troubled by what he didn’t see: large herds of American bison. The bison’s near extinction sparked Hornaday’s crusade to prevent endangered animals from disappearing altogether. He became the first head of the Smithsonian’s Department of Living Animals, bringing 15 North American species to live on Washington, D.C.’s National Mall.

The Adams Mill Road entrance to the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in 1910. Smithsonian Institution Archives. Image #NZP-0883

In 1889, President Grover Cleveland signed an act of congress into law officially creating the National Zoological Park for “the advancement of science and the instruction and recreation of the people.” The Zoo — designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and nestled within D.C.’s Rock Creek Park — opened its doors two years later.

Fun Fact: Olmsted also helped design New York’s Central Park!

A group of schoolchildren view the first American bison at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in 1899. Smithsonian Institution Archives. Image #2003-19498

Visitors can still see American bison at the Zoo today! Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute researchers are also working with bison in the field, in partnership with the American Prairie Reserve. See them in action and learn more about their work.

Zebras grazing at the Conservation Research Center (now called the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute) in 1979. Smithsonian Institution Archives. Image #96-1377

The Zoo’s commitment to conservation science expanded in the second half of the 20th century when it opened a research center dedicated to studying animal reproduction, behavior and ecology. A decade later, in 1975, the Zoo founded the Conservation Research Center (now called the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, or SCBI). Over the years, SCBI researchers have celebrated endangered animal births, led groundbreaking scientific studies and reintroduced animals to the wild!

Giant pandas Ling-Ling (left) and Hsing-Hsing (right) spend time together in their outdoor habitat at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in 1985.

Giant pandas Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing arrived at the Zoo in 1972, launching an international collaboration with Chinese scientists to better understand and protect the then critically endangered bears. Today, Zoo visitors can see giant pandas Mei Xiang, Tian Tian and Bei Bei.

Thanks to conservation programs and international collaboration, the giant panda’s status has been downgraded to vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

A family of endangered golden-headed lion tamarins at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in 1986. Smithsonian Institution Archives. Image #96-1010

In 1986, the Zoo celebrated the birth of an endangered golden-headed lion tamarin — the first ever born in human care in North America!

Asian elephants Ambika and Shanti at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in 1973. Smithsonian Institution Archives. Image #73-6852

Ambika, the Zoo’s oldest elephant, was given to the Zoo in 1961 as a gift from the children of India. Prior to arriving at the Zoo, she had worked as a logging elephant after being captured in the Coorg forest when she was about 8 years old. The Shanti (no "h") pictured here  is not the same Shanthi currently at the Zoo.

A Przewalski’s horse at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in 1910. Smithsonian Institution Archives. Image #NZP-0788

Przewalski’s horses were once extinct in the wild, but conservation programs, including those spearheaded by the Smithsonian, have helped bring them back from the brink. In 2013, SCBI scientists were the first to successfully breed Przewalski’s horses via artificial insemination — a huge breakthrough for the survival of the species. Now, about 1,900 Przewalski’s horses are back in the wild.