A National Zoological Park Commission, comprised of the secretary of the interior, the president of the Board of Commissioners of the District of Columbia, and the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, was formed under an 1889 act to select and purchase land for the National Zoo. In the valley of Rock Creek, located in northwest Washington, DC, 166 acres were eventually purchased for the park. Frederick Law Olmsted, landscape architect, was consulted to design the landscape and the location of the buildings.
The early history of the zoo was marked by the demands for building construction, park layout, roads, and acquisition of animals—all on an extremely tight budget. Despite these difficulties, the zoo and its animal collections began to take shape. In 1891, Dunk and Gold Dust, the zoo's first elephants, and French, the first lion, arrived. Between 1916 and 1924, the zoo continued to operate on modest appropriations. As a result, few new animals were purchased, and housing for existing animals remained inadequate. However, the popularity of the zoo continued to grow, and in 1924, 2.4 million people visited.
In the 1990s, zoo exhibits began to place animals in their natural environments, as seen in the Amazonia exhibit that opened in 1992. In 1997, the Amazonia Science Gallery was opened alongside the exhibit, an eight thousand square foot experimental science education and outreach center that continues to bring visitors into the day-to-day world of scientific research and the people who do it.
In 1991, the Migratory Bird Center was established at the zoo to conduct research on the decline in migratory birds. Zoo scientists were also pioneers in the development of reproductive techniques for ensuring the survival of endangered species, and in the study of conservation genetics, to ensure the genetic diversity of endangered populations. Today, the National Zoo continues to grow. In 2006, a section of the Asia Trail opened, and work is currently being completed on a new Elephant Trail and home for the Asian elephants.
- Chronology of the National Zoological Park
- Bibliography of the National Zoological Park
- Historic Images of the National Zoological Park
- National Zoological Park Records from the Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Historic Picture Highlights of the National Zoological Park
- Additional Records and Collections about the National Zoological Park Across the Smithsonian