In 1989 the National Zoological Park celebrated its centennial. However, as early as 1855 the Smithsonian had received gifts of live animals. In addition, the United States National Museum acquired living animals for life studies in order to create lifelike specimens for exhibit in the Museum. Since there were no facilities for caring for animals not used as specimens, those animals were either transferred to the Superintendent of the United States Insane Asylum (now St. Elizabeth's Hospital) for the amusement of its patients or else sent to the Philadelphia Zoological Garden.
However, parochial needs were not the only source for the idea of a national zoological park. During the last quarter of the nineteenth century there was growing concern that a number of animals would soon become extinct in their natural habitats, among them the American buffalo. William T. Hornaday, taxidermist at the Institution since 1882, had found the National Museum with only a few inferior specimens of the buffalo; and, with the support of Secretary Spencer F. Baird, he traveled to Montana in May and again in September of 1886 to collect specimens while they could still be had. Hornaday was able to collect numerous specimens. However, the state of the buffalo herds he observed during these trips evidently affected him deeply. In 1888, he published his The Extermination of the American Bison. Already, in March 1887 he had proposed to Secretary Baird that a zoological park be established in Washington under the Smithsonian's direction. Baird died before anything could be done; but in October 1887, with the consent of the new Secretary, Samuel P. Langley, a new Division of Living Animals was created in the U. S. National Museum and Hornaday was made its curator. In 1888 Hornaday had, at Secretary Langley's direction, undertaken a survey of land along Rock Creek in northwest Washington lying between the White House and Georgetown to determine its suitability as a zoo site.
The National Zoological Park was established by an Act of Congress in March 1889. The Secretary of the Smithsonian, the Secretary of the Interior, and the President of the Board of Commissioners of the District of Columbia, were constituted as Commissioners of a National Zoological Park in order to purchase land for a zoo in the District of Columbia, "...for the advancement of science and the instruction and recreation of the people." The commissioners ultimately acquired one hundred and sixty-four acres at this site, some by condemnation, most by purchase. In April 1890 Congress passed another act, placing the National Zoological Park under the direction of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution. Half its operating funds were to come from the federal government, half from the District of Columbia. The Board was authorized to expend funds, transfer and exchange specimens, accept gifts, and to generally oversee Zoo operations.
Secretary Langley wanted the best professional advice in planning the layout and design of the Park, and Frederick Law Olmsted, the noted landscape architect, was consulted about all aspects of the Park's layout and design, including pathways, animal enclosures, public access, and the like. Copies of Olmsted's drawings and sketches are at the National Zoological Park today. In practice, however, much of Olmsted's advice was ignored, either because the Park lacked funds to follow his plans or because Secretary Langley often chose to follow his own counsel.
Hornaday became the first Superintendent of the Park but soon resigned because of differences of opinion with Secretary Langley over the scope of the superintendent's authority to control Park operations. In 1890 Frank Baker, Assistant Superintendent of the Light House Service, was appointed Acting Manager in place of Hornaday. From 1893 to until his retirement in 1916 Baker served as superintendent. These early years were full of difficulties. While the Rock Creek site had much natural charm, it was necessary to balance the demands for building construction, park layout and roads, and acquisition of animals--all on an extremely tight budget. Still, as the more mundane affairs of the Park moved slowly forward, there were important "firsts" as well. In 1891 Dunk and Gold Dust, the Park's first elephants, arrived. They were great favorites at the Park, notwithstanding their reputations as troublemakers in the circus which sold them to their new owner. That same year came French, the first lion, then only a cub, who was sold to the Park after he began to alarm the neighbors of his owner in Alderson, West Virginia. During its early years the Park was also the site of Secretary Langley's efforts to study and film the flight of birds, work he undertook as part of his effort to produce a manned flying machine.
On Baker's retirement in 1916, Ned Hollister, an assistant curator of mammals in the U. S. National Museum, was appointed to succeed him. Hollister served until his death in 1924. During his tenure the Park continued to receive very modest appropriations. On that account, it was not possible to purchase much zoo stock; but gifts were numerous. In 1922, they ranged from an opossum given by President Harding to the 15 mammals, 50 birds, and 17 reptiles collected by William M. Mann while on expedition with the Mulford Biological Exploration of the Amazon Basin. Housing for the animals remained inadequate, and many old structures had to remain in use. In 1924 the Park did manage to construct its first restaurant for the use of visitors, who numbered more than 2.4 million people in that year. Superintendent Hollister died in 1924 and was succeeded by Alexander Wetmore, who served only five months before leaving to become Assistant Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution.
In 1925, Dr. William M. Mann became Superintendent (Director after 1926) of the National Zoological Park, a job he was to hold until his retirement in 1956. He hoped to build a zoo which housed a first-class collection in a first-class environment. As in the past, there was little money for purchase of animals, so he continued to rely on gifts. Mann was a good publicist, and he enlisted the sympathies of Walter P. Chrysler. On March 20, 1926, the Smithsonian-Chrysler Expedition set out, arriving at Dar-es-Salaam, Tanganyika, on May 5 of that year. The expedition was a splendid success and returned with 158 mammals, 584 birds, 56 snakes, 12 lizards, 393 tortoises, and 1 frog. Many specimens, like the giraffe, were quite new to the Park. The male and female impala obtained were the only ones in any zoo in the world at that time.
On his return, Mann finally succeeded in obtaining an appropriation for a new bird house to replace the one erected 37 years before. A reptile house followed in 1929. In 1935 some of the Zoo's remaining need for new buildings was finally met. The Public Works Administration, a New Deal relief program, allocated $680,000 for the construction of a Small Mammal and Great Ape House, a Pachyderm House, an addition to the Bird House, and several operations buildings. One of the New Deal's programs for the relief of artists, the Treasury Department's Section of Painting and Sculpture, furnished artists to decorate areas of the Zoo. In fact, the Park employed more artists than any other local institution.
In 1937 the Park was once more the beneficiary of a collecting expedition, the National Geographic Society-Smithsonian Institution Expedition to the Dutch East Indies. Mann brought back with him 74 crates of mammals, 112 crates of birds, and 30 crates of reptiles. In 1940 Harvey Firestone, Jr., offered to finance a collecting expedition to Liberia. Again, the expedition supplied the Park with many specimens, including a female pygmy hippopotamus, Matilda, as companion for the lonely Billy, already at the Park.
When World War II began, the Zoo could not escape its effects. In fact, in 1942 for fear that poisonous snakes might be released from their cages if the Reptile House were struck by an air raid, all the Park's collection of cobras and other venomous snakes was traded to other locations less likely to undergo air attacks. Subsequently, the Park spent some time making repairs and resuming normal activities. In 1956 Dr. Mann retired and was succeeded by acting Director Theodore H. Reed, who was made Director in 1958. In 1958 the Friends of the National Zoo, a group dedicated to supporting the National Zoo and maintaining its reputation as one of the world's great zoos, was organized. In 1960 the Park's budget exceeded a million dollars for the first time. For many years the formula which charged half the Park's expenses to the budget of the District of Columbia had caused a great deal of difficulty. Local residents felt they were being taxed to pay for an institution national in character. Park officials argued that they needed more money than the existing formula could provide. Finally, in 1961, a compromise was reached. All costs for construction and repair of the Park would be carried in the appropriation for the Smithsonian Institution. The District of Columbia would contribute only to the Park's operating costs. As if to give the new arrangement a good send-off, in 1962 Congress appropriated four million dollars for the Park, more than half of it earmarked for a perimeter road around the Zoo and a tunnel to carry automobile traffic through the Zoo. In this way, it was at last possible to close the Park proper to through traffic and to devote the Park reservation solely to strengthening and improving the National Zoological Park's programs.