NOTE: This post first appeared on the Smithsonian Institution Archives’ official blog, The Bigger Picture, on September 11, 2011. Click here to visit the original post.
As a predoctoral fellow in the Smithsonian Institution Archives, I’ve spent the past several months conducting research for my current project on the history of feral animals. By definition, these are creatures who were once domesticated (or had domesticated ancestors) but who now live in the “wild,” on the edge of human habitats. Well, it didn’t take me long to realize that these categories are more fluid than I’d previously guessed, and that it’s not always clear whether a given animal qualifies as wild, domestic, or feral. The earliest years of the National Zoo provide several illustrative examples.
When the Smithsonian established the Department of Living Animals on the National Mall, the event did not go unnoticed among the city’s free-ranging canids. Early in 1889, a roving Newfoundland dog attacked and seriously injured one of the mountain goats on display. Later that summer, a pack of free-ranging dogs killed an antelope that Senator Leland Stanford (who later gave his name to a university in California) had presented to the Smithsonian (Senator Stanford’s Antelope is Dead, Washington Post, June 19, 1889, p. 2).
Stray dogs continued to plague the display, and, if anything, the problem grew worse when the animals were moved to the newly opened National Zoological Park in 1891. In August, several white-tailed deer (also commonly known as Virginia deer) were seriously injured by dogs. Two months later, a prong-horn antelope, frightened by dogs, ran into the fence of a paddock and broke its neck. On October 9, 1892, three dogs entered the park and killed two South American deer (Record Unit 74 – National Zoological Park, Records, 1887-1966).
The problem was accessibility. The grounds of the zoo were never closed to the public and there were no gates to keep dogs from strolling into the park. Guards at the zoo shot any canine interloper that acted in an aggressive manner, but they couldn’t shoot them all. There were just too many. At one point, it was not uncommon to capture between five and eight dogs in the park every day (Impounding Dogs at the Zoo, Washington Post, August 29, 1892, p. 8). Not all of them were unclaimed “vagrants,” either. In fact, the SI Archives are full of letters from Dr. Frank Baker addressed to the owners of tagged dogs found traipsing through the zoo.
Ironically, just as the zoo was working diligently to eradicate some dogs from its premises, it was welcoming others with open arms. The idea for a domestic dog exhibit first germinated in 1892, when Mr. Byron G. Daniels, consul to Hull, England, presented the zoo with a pair of fine Russian wolfhounds named Sokorouchai and Outechka. They came from noble stock, Daniels boasted, and some of their siblings had fetched $1,500 apiece. These wolfhounds were sometimes employed to scare off stray dogs, and on at least one occasion the wolfhounds tore canine intruders from “limb tolimb” (The Zoo’s Fighting Watch: Two Russian Wolfhounds Who Will Tackle Anything Going, Washington Post, August 14, 1893, p. 6).
To learn about the fate of this exhibit and other canine adventures at the zoo, stay tuned for the second half of my blog post.
- Record Unit 74, National Zoological Park, Records, 1887-1966, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Record Unit 386, National Zoological Park, Animal Records, 1887-1976, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- History of the National Zoological Park, Smithsonian Institution Archives