LANHAM, Md. (CBSDC) — The National Zoo is currently home to about 2,000 animals from 400 different species. But it had to start somewhere.

In the beginning, over a century ago, a pair of bison were the zoo’s only animals. As the park prepares to celebrate its 125th anniversary, zoo officials have decided to go retro, and bring the bovines back.

Don Moore, the zoo’s associate director for animal care sciences, explains why bison are so important to the zoo’s history.

William T. Hornaday, chief taxonomist for early Smithsonian in the 1880s, “started to learn about American bison and started to read accounts from the 1850s, from when bison stretched from horizon to horizon in all directions,” Moore said.

But just a couple of decades later, when Hornaday sought to collect some bison for the Smithsonian, he learned that much of the population had been wiped out.

Eventually he did find some, and he brought them back to live on the National Mall near the Smithsonian castle. When the zoo was established in 1889, they were relocated to there.

Hornaday “made it his kind of life long service to the country, if you will, to make sure that bison were back from the brink,” Moore says.

Although he first worked for the Smithsonian, he is perhaps now more famous for his later work at the New York Zoological Park (now the Bronx Zoo) and co-founding the American Bison Society with Theodore Roosevelt.

With the society’s help, the bison population later doubled in number and bison were eventually re-introduced to the wild.

“It’s a model for other zoo-based conservation efforts,” according to Moore. The bison “is an iconic symbol of an animal that was on the brink of extinction.”

About a fifth of the Smithsonian’s zoo animals, including its famed giant pandas, are endangered or threatened.

“Our goal is to save species,” Moore says.

He believes that having bison at the zoo again would be an excellent reminder of that objective.

While the project has been in the pipeline for about two years, the not-yet-named panda cub is the reason why much of the major work has not been completed yet.

The vacant exhibit is very close to the giant panda habitat and the noise of construction could scare her or mom Mei Xiang, Moore says.

Visitors can, however, expect to see the giant creatures beginning some time in 2014.

To donate to the bison project, which will cost more than $1 million, click here.


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