Animals Behind the Castle: The Department of Living Animals

Before Congress created the National Zoo, the Smithsonian's Department of Living Animals kept it’s collection of animals behind the Castle.

Before the Haupt Garden lived behind the Smithsonian Institution Building, more popularly known as the Castle, the South Yard was home to many things: a tennis court, a parking lot, a taxidermy studio, the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, and what became the National Zoological Park. First known as the Department of Living Animals, it existed from 1887 to 1889, until the National Zoo facility in Rock Creek Park opened in 1890. The Department of Living Animals was the creation of William Temple Hornaday, Smithsonian taxidermist and conservationist.

An aerial view from the southwest of the Smithsonian Institution Building, 1993.

Hornaday with Baby Bison at Smithsonian
Perhaps the first animal in this collection was Sandy, a baby bison Hornaday brought back from his expedition out West. He brought back seventeen animals in total, including: two red foxes, a cinnamon bear, a white-tailed deer, five prairie dogs, a Columbian black-tailed deer, a cross fox, a mule deer, two badgers, a golden eagle, and a spotted lynx.

The Department of Living Animals was housed in a small shed behind the Castle which fit the collection of about seventeen animals that Hornaday initially acquired, but was soon overwhelmed. Once word got out, the collection quickly grew. In his curator’s annual report, Hornaday reported that “Many valuable gifts were offered, and accepted, and a number of desirable small objects which were offered to the Institution at nominal prices were purchased and added to the collection. Among the earliest gifts were an unusually large and fine Jaguar, from Mr. J. W. Riddle, of Eagle Pass, Texas, and two black bears from Mr. J. J. E. Lindberg, of El Paso, Texas.”

In less than a month, people had donated so many specimens that the number of animals rose to fifty-eight. In February and March the size of the collection nearly doubled. By the end of June, the Department of Living Animals had acquired seventy-four mammals, seventy-two birds, and twenty-six reptiles. The rapidly growing collections were quickly more than one person could handle. Though Hornaday was appointed curator of the Department of Living Animals on May 12th, he also wrote that “With rapid increase in the size and value of the collection came an increase in amount of labor and attention it absolutely required.  But for the valuable and indefatigable service which had been voluntarily entered upon, chiefly as a personal favor, by Mr. W. C. Weeden, in addition to his duties as Assistant Engineer, the department of living animals would have suffered very serious embarrassment.”

School Children Viewing the First Bison at the National Zoo
Not only were there more animals than Hornaday could handle, visitors quickly overwhelmed the small space, too. Hornaday’s collection of living animals opened to the public on December 31, 1887 and it immediately became quite popular. Six months later, between 2,000 and 3,000 people were viewing the collection in a single day and overcrowding was a serious problem. Hornday considered the most serious drawback of the collection to be “the lack of space in the Menagerie building for the proper comfort of the visitors who daily visit the collection. 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.”

Fortunately, that problem was soon addressed when Congress established the National Zoological Park in 1889. By 1890, the overcrowding was relieved as the living collections had moved to the National Zoological Park, where they remain to this day. 

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