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A New Kind of Zoo - B&C Impact Series

At the turn of the twentieth century, members of the Boone and Crockett Club changed the way the world looked at animals—literally. They designed a new kind of zoo, which educated visitors, eliminated cramped concrete cages and conserved rare species. We still use that model today. 

Several B&C Members, including Henry Fairfield Osborn (top) and Madison Grant (bottom) were instrumental in the creation of the Bronx Zoo.

To the casual visitor, the Bronx Zoo is, well, a zoo meant to entertain tourists in the Big Apple. As they’re pushed in strollers, young children can ogle at species from around the world while weary parents try to avoid the cotton candy vendor. And yet the history of this particular zoo—its creation and lasting contributions to conservation—is so much more than a walk in the park.

In the late 1800s, many feared the world’s big game was being hunted to extinction, be it for ivory, meat, or thrill. In 1889, members of the Boone and Crockett Club had worked to establish a National Zoo in Washington, D.C., in an effort to preserve these vanishing animals. Madison Grant, an early member of the Boone and Crockett Club, wanted to bring a zoo to New York City where he lived. In 1894, he floated the idea by Club president and founder Theodore Roosevelt. Grant phrased his idea as “legislation in the interest of game protection.” He was proposing a new kind of zoo, one that would introduce the masses to the idea of game preservation, placing emphasis on the habitat in which those species dwelled. 

His vision for the exhibits allowed animals more room to roam and to have more interaction with one another. As with any new idea, there were detractors. They thought that visitors liked to see individual live animals up close in a tiny cage so they couldn’t hide from view. Plus, there was already the Central Park Zoo, which, in reality, was nine acres of discarded camels and other circus animals. “A more wretched exhibition of ill-kept specimens than the existing Zoo cannot be found in any large city in the world,” wrote Grant. 


Before breaking ground, Grant needed to create a governing body to help cultivate his idea and raise plenty of money. It would be called the New York Zoological Society. Grant drafted legislation to create the New York Zoological Society, which would, in turn, create the New York Zoological Park. (Today, it’s simply known as the Bronx Zoo, and the New York Zoological Society changed its name to the Wildlife Conservation Society in 1993.) Grant himself roamed New York’s legislative halls to drum up support for his idea. He turned to fellow Boone and Crockett Club members as well, which proved effective. In April 1895, the New York state assembly approved the formation of the New York Zoological Society on the condition that Boone and Crockett Club Members would serve as the incorporators. 

Those incorporators included Grant as well as architect and Boone and Crockett member Grant C. La Farge. Among those on the new society’s board were B&C co-founder George Bird Grinnell and aristocratic paleontologist Henry Fairfield Osborn. All told, there were nine members from the Club on the board. They nominated William T. Hornaday to be the zoo’s first director. And for the next 30 years, the New York Zoological Park, or Bronx Zoo as we’ll call it from here on, would be run by Grant, Osborn, and Hornaday. The efforts of the Club and its members were not lost on Grant who wrote, “When the Society was once organized, the first support it secured was from the members of that club, who came forward almost in a body—practically every New York City member—with money and with time.” 

Preliminary plan of the Zoological Park for New York City in South Bronx Park.

The New York Zoological Society was initially granted 261 acres for the site of the new zoo, and they received $125,000 from the State of New York to prep the site. To build the zoo, Grant needed to raise $250,000—around $8.3 million today. It wouldn’t take him long. Grant had friends with names like Carneigie, Rockefeller, and Vanderbilt. At the time, the U.S. was a rising global military power, and he wrapped his philanthropic requests in patriotism. This would be a zoo that Americans would be proud of—a show of American might to the world. It would be a zoo to beat all others. After all, Europe’s largest zoo at the time was in Berlin at a paltry 60 acres. You could almost hear him humming the Battle Hymn of the Republic as he collected those five- and six-figure donations. His marketing worked, because in the summer of 1898, they broke ground.  

The New Zoo 

Just four years after receiving legislative approval, the zoo opened in November 1899. It featured 843 animals, with 157 species from around the world—and the atmosphere was a wholly unique experience. Admission was free except for two days of the week. To ease access to the zoo, Grant laid out the route and designed the stone bridges for the scenic Bronx River Parkway.

Henry Fairfield Osborn speaking at the November 1899 zoo opening ceremony.

There were other perks, too. Wildlife parks of the time made you purchase a guidebook if you actually wanted to know what animals you were looking at. Plus, the guidebooks contained an ever-important map, which you needed at closing time so you could go home. In contrast, the Bronx Zoo featured signs and displays that included maps. These displays always informed visitors on the plights of various species, which was typically dire. Preaching the gospel of conservation to the masses was a driving force for Grant, as well as for members of the Boone and Crockett Club. 

The opening, though, wasn’t without issues. Some displays weren’t completed, and others were less than escape-proof. When the orangutan enclosure wasn’t ready, the Hornaday family hosted the primates in their living room until their enclosures were ready. Sea lions made a break for the Bronx River. Kinks were ironed out, and as years went by, millions would visit the park annually. The number of species grew, including the first live Komodo dragons in America, courtesy of W. Douglas Burden and his wife. By 1909, the park had upward of 5,000 animals.  

Arrival of an anaconda from South America, 1912
Pictured here is the first of four thylacines who lived at the Bronx Zoo between 1902 and 1919. The Bronx Zoo and Smithsonian National Zoo are the only two zoos in the U.S. to ever exhibit this now extinct species. The last known thylacine died at the Hobart Zoo in Tasmania in 1936.
Barbary lion cubs at the Bronx Zoo, May 1903. The offspring of Barbary lions Sultan and Bedouin Maid, these cubs were the first to be born at the Bronx Zoo. 
Cyclone the grizzly bear, Bronx Zoo, December 1901. Cyclone was a popular animal in the early years of the Bronx Zoo.  William T. Hornaday, called him “really a fine-spirited dignified little grizzly.”
Bison and young at the Bronx Zoo, July 1907. Just months after this photo was taken, in October 1907, the American Bison Society would ship 15 bison from the Bronx Zoo’s herd to the Wichita Game and Forest Reserve in Oklahoma.  This was the first step in a successful multi-year effort to repopulate the bison of the American West.
Axis deer herd at the Bronx Zoo, October 1907
Visitors at the Sea Lion Pool, Bronx Zoo, 1905
Images from the Wildlife Conservation Society Archives 

In their agreement with the city, the New York Zoological Society agreed to take responsibility for the collections and scientific maintenance of all the displays. For a guy like Hornaday, this was a dream come true, especially when it came to the National Collection of Heads and Horns

A National Collection 

In an effort to continue to spread the word on conserving the world’s vanishing species, Hornaday had a goal to compile two complete collections of the heads and horns of ungulates from around the world. He, too, held Grant’s fear that the large game of North America, Africa, and India was on the verge of extinction. A representative collection of heads and horns, Hornaday thought, would be a lasting memorial to the “vanishing species of the world.” 

The building for the Boone and Crockett Club's National Collection of Heads and Horns was completed in 1922. It included specimens from around the world. 

In 1907, Hornaday used his connections to the Boone and Crockett Club and other organizations to spread the word to sportsmen that they were looking for donations. And those sportsmen delivered. Contributions to the collection came from all over the world. Hornaday donated his personal collection of 131 heads and horns representing 108 species. Many others followed. By 1916 it had grown to 850 specimens, far beyond the capacity of the original building. Hornaday would build the collection’s home on the grounds of the Bronx Zoo. 

Like Grant, Hornaday reached out to deep-pocketed friends, and he was able to raise $100,000 from ten donors in a short time. His efforts took a hiatus because of World War I, but by May 1922, the building was complete. At two stories and 10,842 square feet, there was plenty of room to showcase the National Collection of Heads and Horns. Today, the collection is housed at the Wonders of Wildlife Museum & Aquarium in Springfield, Missouri. 

The Club's first big game record book, published in 1932.

It should be noted that the National Collection of Heads and Horns was used as an educational tool to inform the masses about species extinction across the globe, as well as a litmus test for the Club’s early scoring system. Prentiss N. Gray, a long-time Club member, authored the Club’s first big-game record book titled, Records of North American Big Game. The measurements were quite simple back then. They included the length of the skull, or the longer antler or horn, plus a basal circumference. In 1952, the Club published another Records of North American Big Game. That edition is the first records book that used the Club's copyrighted scoring system adopted in 1950.

The Legacy  

Today, the Bronx Zoo attracts more than two million visitors annually. As they wander the labyrinth of wildlife exhibits, those visitors are part of the conservation legacy that began 125 years ago with the New York Zoological Society, founded by a handful of members from the Boone and Crockett Club. Much like Grinnell’s articles in Forest and Stream that touted the need to conserve the wilderness that would become Glacier National Park, the Bronx Zoo educated and continues to educate the general public about the threats to wildlife across our planet. The Bronx Zoo created a new model for zoos by replacing the constricting confines of concrete cages with larger exhibits giving animals more room to roam.  

Writing in 1910, Grinnell would rank the creation of the New York Zoological Society (and its Bronx Zoo) right up there with the Club’s efforts to create both Yellowstone and Glacier National Park. “The New York Zoological Society,” Grinnell wrote, “has been and is a child of the Boone and Crockett Club.”

Through the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) today, the conservation vision that began with the New York Zoological Society has expanded into 60 countries. The WCS works on ape conservation in Africa, reintroductions of the Magdalena River Turtle to Colombia, and everything in between. With 3,700 employees working around the globe in the name of conservation, it’s hard to imagine that it all started with a handful of sportsmen. 

Writing in 1910, Grinnell would rank the creation of the New York Zoological Society (and its Bronx Zoo) right up there with the Club’s efforts to create both Yellowstone and Glacier National Park. “The New York Zoological Society,” Grinnell wrote, “has been and is a child of the Boone and Crockett Club.” 

About the Impact Series

The Impact Series is dedicated to showing how sportsmen, members of the Boone and Crockett Club in particular, saved the wildlife and wild places of the United States. Early members of the Boone and Crockett Club comprised the movers, shakers, and initiators of the American conservation movement. They were hunters, anglers, explorers, lawmakers, soldiers, and above all conservationists. These members established laws that allowed our wildlife resources to flourish. They also protected landscape-scale geologic marvels and American icons like Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, Denali, and many, many more. These members may no longer be with us, but their legacy remains. This series aims to honor their accomplishments and remind us of the good work still yet to do.


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"The wildlife and its habitat cannot speak. So we must and we will."

-Theodore Roosevelt