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.
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.”
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.
- William Temple Hornaday: Saving the American Bison, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- USNM Curators Annual Reports--Department of Living Animals: Annual and Monthly Reports, 1887-88, Smithsonian Transcription Center
- USNM Curators Annual Reports--Department of Living Animals: Annual and Monthly Reports, 1888-89, Smithsonian Transcription Center