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Wednesday, September 24, 2014

From the News: Buffaloes, gentle giants of the plains, return to the National Zoo after a decade

Curator Steve Sarro feeds a bison leaf-eater biscuits in the barn at the Smithsonian's National Zoo on Aug. 21 in Washington. (Yue Wu/The Washington Post)

This year, the Smithsonian National Zoological Park celebrates its 125th birthday.  It does so, in part, by welcoming back the animal that lead to the zoo's creation - the American bison, popularly (but incorrectly!) often called the American buffalo.  The impetus for a National Zoo came from Smithsonian taxidermist William T. Hornaday, who was deeply concerned about the slaughter of North America's most iconic (and formerly most abundant) large mammal.  Hornaday didn't last too long in DC for a variety of reasons, but his passion and commitment for wildlife conservation eventually gave rise to New York's Bronx Zoo.

Not terribly sure how I feel about this new exhibit.  I'm not saying that in a snarky "I don't approve" way, but in a literal, not sure, rather ambivalent way.  Yes, I certainly appreciate the important role that bison play in the zoo's history... and, indeed, in America's collective conservation history.  It's always good to show people a "win" for wildlife now and then, a sign that the loss of our wildlife can be halted, or even reversed.  That can inspire people to work towards efforts to save other endangered species.  And it's true, I certainly missed the bison when they left the zoo years ago.

That being said...

Bison are safe.  No, we probably will never see herds of millions roaming the plains anyway - some idiots put Omaha, Topeka, and Oklahoma City in the way - but they are in no danger of extinction.  William Hornaday and Theodore Roosevelt would probably be dancing the hornpipe with excitement if they could see how many bison there are today - in zoos, in ranches, and in public and private lands.  There are, however, a lot of animals which are still in danger, and the failure to create sustainable captive breeding populations for them is one of the problems they face.  Ungulates (hoofed mammals) are a diverse, wonderful group of beasts, but one that has been on a bit of a decline in zoos over the last few decades.  That's because instead of bongo, onager, and guar, most zoos display the same tiny handful of species, such as giraffe, plains zebra, and... American bison.

Now, the National Zoo does a heck of a lot of good for conservation, so I can hardly begrudge them some space for the animal that earned them their existence.  And bison do have a place in DC - they are, after all, practically the national animal.  It's just that I always like to look out for the underdogs (or in this case, undercows)... the animals that no one is saving because no one even knows about.

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