Yet even outside the park’s boundaries, dogs continued to make trouble for the zoo. Consider the following episode, which also featured the dog’s closest wild (never-domesticated) cousin, the gray wolf. This creature had been so thoroughly exterminated from the eastern half of the United States that the zoo accepted its first specimen from sparsely populated Montana in 1887. Others hailed from Wyoming and Colorado. On April 2, 1902, two of the Colorado wolves gave birth to a litter of five pups, one of whom (a female known as “catalogue no. 4459”) would soon gain infamy across the city .
Zoo officials would hear nothing of it, insisting from the very beginning that the wolf had not attacked anyone. Keeper Blackburne explained that this particular wolf was “not of a ferocious disposition,” and that being born and raised in captivity had engendered trust toward humans, not animosity. [See collection RU 74, Box 286, Scrapbooks] Baker indicated that it must have been a dog who perpetrated the violence. A pall hung over Northwest DC for three weeks, as citizens went about their lives unsure whether a mad dog still roamed among them. The mystery drew inevitable comparisons to Arthur Conan Doyle’s Hound of the Baskervilles, which had been published to popular acclaim just a few months earlier.
In the case of the zoo’s truant wolf, the role of Sherlock Holmes was ably played by none other than the city’s aforementioned
As for the wolf, she obviously just suffered from very bad luck. Soon after she escaped, she had unwittingly stumbled into the same back yard where just hours earlier Dewey’s dog had cut a swath of terror. Mr. Bowles, a gardener working at the residence of Representative Francis G. Newlands, was already suffering from a bite wound when the wolf appeared. Under the assumption his assailant had returned, Bowles shot the lupine visitor in her left hip. Wolf no. 4459 never really recovered from the gunshot wound, and died a few months later.
Conditions slowly changed in the months and years thereafter, as both the city and the Smithsonian wrested ever greater control over their respective canids.
In 1902 Poundmaster Einstein bragged that fewer stray dogs roamed DC than at any other point in his 29-year tenure. The number of licensed dogs had also increased dramatically (from 6,000 in 1887 to 9,000 in 1902), while the zoo’s remaining wolves were kept under secure lock and key (and nowhere else for hundreds of miles) from that point on.
These episodes demonstrate that it’s not always easy to distinguish among wild, domestic, and feral animals, but that doing so has its rewards. Teasing apart their tangled histories can teach us about the animals themselves, of course, but it can also teach us about the people with whom they forged relationships. The way we engage (and disengage) with other animals has changed over the years, and examing our evolving relationship with the rest of nature promises to shed light on an important but underrepresented aspect of American history.
- History of the National Zoological Park, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- 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