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National Zoo opens American bison exhibit in honor of 125th anniversary
In this photo (from left to right): Andrew Morrill, Leighton Watson, and Brandie Smith. Photo: Pamela Baker-Masson, Smithsonian's National Zoo.

WASHINGTON, DC.- In honor of its 125th anniversary, the Smithsonian’s National Zoo is once again home to American bison, the animal that began the Zoo’s living collection in 1889 and sparked the conservation movement. The American Bison exhibit, sponsored by Continental Building Products, opens to the public Saturday, Aug. 30.

“Our founder William Temple Hornaday envisioned a national zoo where bison and other vanishing species would thrive,” said Dennis Kelly, Zoo director. “By bringing bison back to the Zoo, we hope Americans will reconnect with this iconic species. Bison played a key role in the history of our country and the history of our great Zoo. Let these animal ambassadors remind us all that we can save wildlife and their habitats.”

In 1887, Hornaday—chief taxidermist for the Smithsonian—proposed that Congress establish a National Zoological Park after seeing the bison population decline. Shortly thereafter, four American bison and a few other North American species roamed around the Smithsonian Castle. On March 2, 1889, Congress passed an act establishing the National Zoological Park in Washington, D.C., dedicated to “the advancement of science and the instruction and recreation of the people.” The Zoo officially became a part of the Smithsonian in 1890 and opened to the public April 30, 1891, in its current Rock Creek Park location.

To name today’s bison, the Zoo collaborated with two local universities: Howard University and Gallaudet University. Both universities have a special connection to the species, which serves as their mascots. Howard University students chose to name one bison Zora in honor of alumnus Zora Neal Hurston, acclaimed author, poet and civil rights activist. Students at Gallaudet University selected the name Wilma in honor of alumnus Wilma Newhoudt-Druchen, the first deaf woman elected to serve in the Republic of South Africa’s parliament. Student representatives from each university announced the names at the Zoo Aug. 27.

Zora and Wilma weigh 550 and 500 pounds, respectively; at full maturity, female bison can weigh up to 1,100 pounds. National Zoo visitors can expect to see the bison trot, rest and graze in their lush new habitat located adjacent to the “Zoo in Your Backyard” exhibit. Website visitors can learn about the ties between bison and the Zoo, how the animals were brought back from the brink of extinction and the deep connection American Indian nations have to this species.

Bison have made a comeback since their populations were decimated to just 375 individuals, but the species still depends heavily on conservation action for survival. Today, about 30,000 individuals comprise the conservation herds. Another 500,000 are managed as livestock by private commercial ventures. The International Union for Conservation of Nature lists American bison as a species that is near threatened by extinction; IUCN does not consider commercial herds in designating population status.

Both Zora and Wilma came to the Zoo from the American Prairie Reserve in northeastern Montana. The reserve spans more than 300,000 acres of public and private land. It is one of the most intact prairies left in North America. Bison are not the only animals living on the reserve; hundreds of others, including elk, pronghorn, sage grouse and prairie dogs, do too.

Currently, with a continued focus on conservation and education, the Zoo is home to about 1,800 animals representing 300 species. Both the Zoo and the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute facilitate and promote veterinary and reproductive research as well as conservation ecology programs based at Front Royal, Washington, D.C., and at field research stations and training sites worldwide.

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