Established at nearly the same time, the National Zoo and Rock Creek Park share a common history, environment and mission.
As the movement to create Rock Creek Park was gaining momentum in the late 1880s, the Smithsonian needed a place to house dozens of wild animals the Institution brought to the Mall starting in 1887.
William Temple Hornaday, curator of the Smithsonian's newly established Department of Living Animals, acquired more than 170 mammals, birds and reptiles. Initially they were meant to be models for his fellow taxidermists. Then — alarmed at the near-extermination of the American buffalo — Hornaday envisioned the collection as the foundation for a national zoo that could save threatened species and educate the public. Visitors flocked to the grounds near the Smithsonian Castle to see the menagerie — from bison, bears and badgers to vultures, vipers and Virginia deer.
In March 1889, President Grover Cleveland signed a huge, catch-all appropriations bill. One section authorized a new home for the Smithsonian's animal collection — a National Zoological Park whose aim was "the advancement of science, the instruction and recreation of the people." A proposed amendment had called for the establishment of Rock Creek Park. But it failed, as park opponents supported the zoo as a less costly alternative. The park would have to wait for a new Congress.
Where Should the Wild Things Be
A zoo commission was charged with finding an appropriate location somewhere along Rock Creek between Massachusetts Avenue and Military Road. Among the sites considered was property around Peirce Mill. The commissioners selected a spot closer to the city, but similar in nature — rising above the creek in hills and plateaus near the site of a historic mill, a quarry and an old mansion. Among the property owners who gave up land for the zoo was Joshua Pierce Klingle, from the Peirce family.
Opened to the public in 1891, the zoological park was designed by landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted (whose son, F. L. Olmsted Jr., would go on to shape the layout of Rock Creek Park). Animal enclosures were erected on the plateaus. The quarry road became the main path through the zoo (now called Olmsted Walk). The mansion, Holt House, was used as administrative offices until 1977. One of the zoo entrances is off Adams Mill Road, named for the mill.
From the arrival in 1891 of Dunk and Gold Dust — the zoo's first elephants — to the birth of giant pandas Tai Shan and Bao Bao in 2005 and 2013, Washingtonians have gone crazy for some of the zoo's animals. Soko, a chimpanzee acquired in 1915, would take walks about the grounds and pour milk from a bottle as he ate formal meals sitting at a table. Ham — the astronaut chimp whose 1961 launch paved the way for US manned spaceflight — retired from the Air Force and joined the zoo from 1963 to 1980. Smokey Bear — a cub that survived a New Mexico forest fire — lived at the zoo from 1950 until his death in 1976, serving as a symbol of the public service campaign against wildfires. Mohini, a white tigress, arrived in 1960. More recently, Rusty the red panda lit up Twitter in 2013 after escaping from his yard and making it all the way to the Adams Morgan neighborhood before being captured.
A New Zoo
The National Zoo entered its modern era in the 1950s and 60s, returning to Hornaday's original commitment to save endangered species and inform the public. For decades, the emphasis had been on exhibiting as many types of animals as possible. Now the zoo began transforming into a center for research, breeding and conservation of threatened species, where naturalistic displays can teach visitors about preserving these animals. In 1975, the zoo opened a separate research campus, now the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, in Front Royal, VA. Since 2006, the zoo's newest habitats have included Asia Trail, Elephant Trails and American Trail — with plans for a new bird exhibit focused on migrating species in the Americas.
Part of the Neighborhood
The zoo has taken advantage of its setting in Rock Creek valley, sheltered from the urban landscape around it. In the early years, the creek even served as a watering hole for the elephants. As in Rock Creek Park, New Deal agencies put unemployed Americans to work at the zoo during the 1930s, erecting the Small Mammal House and Reptile House and providing art throughout the grounds. The zoo's newest buildings support the valley's environment through sustainable design elements such as green roofs and geothermal heating and cooling. The zoo grounds also provide habitat for local wildlife. One of the most anticipated events each spring is the return of the black-crowned night herons to their nesting colony near the Bird House.
The zoo shares some of the same problems as the park, including traffic. Until 1966, the main paths through the zoo were for cars, and driving through the park to the zoo involved splashing through fords that became impassable after heavy rains. The overpopulation of deer has spilled over onto the zoo's campus — though one animal learned the hard way in 2013 not to jump into a cheetah yard.
The National Zoo and Rock Creek Park, created just 18 months apart, endure as neighbors and partners in preservation — protecting vulnerable species around the world and a treasured local wilderness.