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New York Zoological Park. Office of Director. William T. Hornaday and W. Reid Blair incoming correspondence and subject files

Identifier: 1001

Scope and Content

These records consist of incoming correspondence (and sometimes carbon copies or drafts of outgoing correspondence), staff memoranda, reports, and working papers reflecting the planning, policies, and day-to-day operations administered by the Director and General Curator of the Zoological Park.

Records cover planning, construction, opening, and improving zoological exhibits; the acquisition, shipment, and acclimation of animal collections; veterinary matters; queries from zoologists, zoo visitors, and the general public; public relations; and relations with the City of New York concerning transportation facilities and funding; and other aspects of park management.

Early documents include successive drafts of proposed state charter legislation; agreements with the Board of Estimate and Commissioners of the Sinking Fund of the City of New York granting South Bronx Park to the New York Zoological Society, and regarding construction of the Zoological Park; and the selection of Hornaday as Director and his first visits to the leading zoological gardens of Europe on behalf of the New York Zoological Society.

In addition to other New York Zoological Society officers such as William Beebe, Lee S. Crandall, Raymond L. Ditmars, Madison Grant, and Henry Fairfield Osborn, the many notable correspondents in this collection include Frank Buck, Carl Hagenbeck, C. J. "Buffalo" Jones, Theodore Roosevelt, and Carl Rungius. (Please note, however, that this collection is not currently indexed by correspondent.)


  • 1895-1940


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William T. Hornaday (1854-1937) was the first Director of the New York Zoological Park, from 1896 until his retirement in 1926. W. Reid Blair (1875-1949), Veterinarian from 1902 to 1922 and Assistant Director beginning in 1922, directed the zoo from 1926 until 1940.

A passionate defender of wildlife, William T. Hornaday was well known during his lifetime for his closely linked roles in the worlds of zoos, natural history writing, and wildlife conservation. He served as the first director of the New York Zoological Park, known today as the Bronx Zoo, from the time of its planning in 1896 until his retirement in 1926.

William Temple Hornaday was born December 1, 1854 outside of Avon, Indiana. In 1856, his family moved to a farm in southern Iowa surrounded by extensive, virgin prairie, and Hornaday was drawn to native wildlife at an early age. He attended Oskaloosa College in 1871 and then went on to Iowa State Agricultural College (now Iowa State University). Later, he received three honorary degrees, including one from Yale University.

While at Iowa State, Hornaday served as taxidermist for the college museum, but he left in his sophomore year, November 1873, for a position with Henry Augustus Ward’s Natural Science Establishment in Rochester, NY. Hornaday’s work with Ward led to opportunities for extensive travel on collecting trips and allowed him to develop his reputation as a field naturalist. His travels in the Caribbean, West Indies, South America, and Asia—along with the experiences of his youth and his later confrontation with the bison slaughter—shaped his philosophy toward wildlife.

Hornaday’s work with Ward also furthered his interest and expertise in taxidermy. In his taxidermy work, he moved the field away from presenting animals as isolated in static, unnatural poses. He introduced the concept of displaying them surrounded by their natural element, and he refined new techniques to present animals in more naturalistic attitudes. He founded the National Society of American Taxidermists in 1880, and he was named Chief Taxidermist of the US National Museum in 1882.

It was in this capacity that Hornaday was sent on a collecting trip to the American west in 1886. With the American bison on the brink of extinction due to overhunting, he hoped to preserve them for posterity through taxidermy. The trauma of personally witnessing the deliberate decimation of the bison herds, and the general public indifference to it, set Hornaday on the path for a 50-year struggle dedicated to protecting wildlife and educating the public about the plight of wildlife.

With these goals in mind, Hornaday spent the late 1880s lobbying for the bill that would eventually establish the National Zoo in Washington 1889. After leading the design of the new national zoo and promoting a vision of captive breeding programs for endangered species, Hornaday resigned in 1890 because he was not made director. He spent the following six years working in real estate.

In 1896, the newly chartered New York Zoological Society, now known as the Wildlife Conservation Society, enticed Hornaday back to the zoo field by offering him the opportunity to create a world-class zoo. Hornaday played a major role in selection of the site for the New York Zoological Park (he hated the nickname “Bronx Zoo”), which opened in 1899, and in the design of early exhibits. He served in the triple role of Director, General Curator, and Curator of Mammals until he retired in 1926. Among his many activities, he established one of the world’s most extensive collections, insisted on unprecedented standards for exhibit labeling, promoted lecture series, and offered studio spaces to artists. In the Bronx, Hornaday changed the perception of zoos from amusing curiosities to centers for education about wildlife and their protection.

After his retirement, Hornaday was appointed Director Emeritus and continued to write and advocate for wildlife up until the week before his death on March 6, 1937, at age 82, in Stamford, Connecticut. He was survived by his beloved wife of 58 years, Josephine, and a daughter, Helen.

Hornaday’s advocacy is generally credited with preserving the American bison from extinction. On returning from his 1886 trip to the American west, he published The Extermination of the American Bison (1889), both a scientific work and a call for social action, and began speaking publicly on the subject. He created the bison exhibit for the National Museum which helped to galvanize public opinion on the slaughter. He began his advocacy for a national zoo, hoping to propagate bison in captivity, and he began to plan, with Theodore Roosevelt, a society for the protection of the bison. Years later, as director of the Bronx Zoo, Hornaday acquired bison, and by 1903 there were 40 bison on the zoo’s 10-acre range. In 1905, the American Bison Society was formed at a meeting in the Bronx Zoo’s Lion House, with Hornaday as its president. When the first large-game preserve in America was created in 1905—Wichita National Forest and Game Preserve—Hornaday offered 15 individuals from the Bronx Zoo herd for a re-introduction program. He personally selected the release site and the individual animals. By 1919, nine herds had been established through the efforts of the American Bison Society.

At the start of Hornaday’s career, wildlife conservation was a little-known concept and federal legislation on such matters was unknown at the time. Yet the bison was not alone in its plight: the passenger pigeon was in its final decline, and hundreds of thousands of birds were being slaughtered all over the world to decorate women’s hats. During his lifetime, Hornaday published almost two dozen books and hundreds of articles on the need for conservation, attempting to present it as a moral obligation. Most notable was the 1913 publication—and distribution to every member of Congress—of his book Our Vanishing Wildlife. This indictment of the overhunting of American wildlife, and the legislation that failed to protect it, profoundly influenced public opinion. Throughout his career, he lobbied and provided testimony for several congressional acts for wildlife protection laws and the establishment of preserves. In 1913, he established the Permanent Wildlife Protection Fund as means to agitate for wildlife protection.

Today, Hornaday is often remembered not for his considerable achievements but for his shameful decision to present the Congolese pygmy Ota Benga as a zoo exhibit in 1906. Although his thinking on non-human life was progressive, his thinking on his own species was racist. His racism was not remarkable for his time, but it was far from universal, and the exhibit was met with immediate outrage and discontinued. Famously irascible, Hornaday never apologized for the incident nor apparently for any criticism ever offered him.

In 1914, Hornaday created the Wildlife Protection Medal for significant contributions to conservation. The Boy Scouts of America carried on this tradition after his death, and they continue to present the William T. Hornaday Award to those who make significant contributions to conservation and environmental protection.

William Reid Blair, DVS (June 7, 1875-March 3, 1949), better known as W. Reid Blair, worked at the New York Zoological Park from 1902 to 1940. He began as Assistant Veterinarian and Pathologist and retired from the Zoo as its Director. During his 38-year career at the Zoo, he implemented many advancements in the care of captive animals, and he focused on the educational capacity of zoos. Additionally, it was Dr. Blair who relaxed the insistence of William T. Hornaday, the Zoo’s first director, on the use of the formal name New York Zoological Park in favor of the more familiar Bronx Zoo.

Blair was born June 7, 1875 in Philadelphia. His interest in animals and their care began during summers on his grandfather’s farm in Massachusetts where he lived after 1885. It was further developed during his studies at McGill University, from which he received a DVS degree from the Faculty of Comparative Medicine in 1902 and an honorary LLD in 1928.

Blair began his career with the Bronx Zoo in 1902 as Assistant Veterinarian to Dr. Frank Miller. The following year, Blair took over as Head Veterinarian. After serving for two years (1918-1919) as Chief of the 4th Veterinarian Corps in the US Army in France and Germany, he returned to the Zoo and, in 1922, was appointed the Zoo’s Assistant Director. Upon the June 1926 retirement of William T. Hornaday, the Zoo’s first director, Blair became Director of the Bronx Zoo. He remained in that post for nearly 14 years until his own retirement on May 1, 1940. After his retirement, Blair maintained his interest in the Bronx Zoo, continuing to attend New York Zoological Society meetings. Described as “genial, social and outgoing,” he was greatly loved by his friends and associates. He died in New York on March 3, 1949. Blair was committed both to the care of zoo animals and to the scientific study of them. “He came to the Zoo with a two-fold purpose: to lengthen and benefit the lives of the creatures in captivity, and to furnish whatever solid contributions to biology, zoology and medicine could be made from such a wonderful observation post as a zoo.” He encouraged students and professors to make use of the research facilities available at the Zoo. His contributions to veterinary science and the management of animals in captivity were considerable: he wrote and published many papers on subjects such as infections, parasites, and bone diseases in animals in captivity, and was able to implement many changes in the husbandry of wild animals in captivity that improved and lengthened their lives. Many of these are still in wide use in zoos today.

Upon becoming Director, Blair submitted to the Executive Committee a seven-point list of suggestions that embodied his vision for the Zoo: 1) Enlargement of the collection of the wild cattle of the world; 2) Experimentation with the Hagenbeck idea of barless exhibits, using moats instead of fences or bars; 3) Creation of a special exhibit for anthropoid apes; 4) A facility to promote breeding of big cats, monkeys, and small mammals; 5) A separate building for the exhibit of the Zoo’s very large collection of parrots and other psittacine birds; 6) An auditorium for lectures and member meetings; 7) A cooperative research program with local universities.

Although many of these goals were realized after Blair’s departure, their origins can be traced to Blair. These include the 1941 opening of the African Plains exhibit—a multi-species “barless” exhibit relying on moats—and the 1950 opening of another “barless” exhibit, the Great Apes House, which was eventually replaced in 1999 by the opening of the Congo Gorilla Forest.

Blair was an avid and active collector of new species for the Zoo. He authorized and sometimes accompanied numerous collecting trips and brought back many unusual animals, several of which were first exhibited in captivity at the Bronx Zoo. Among these were the first Bongo (“Doreen”) and the first Okapi to be seen in this country. He sent the first expedition to New Guinea, which vastly expanded the Zoo’s collection of birds, especially birds-of-paradise.

Blair was determined to promote the idea that the purpose of a zoo was as an “educational rather than as a purely recreational undertaking.” He did much to advance this belief, beginning with winning a 1927 Ohio lawsuit over a bequest to the New York Zoological Society as an educational institution. Shortly thereafter, he hired the Bronx Zoo’s first docent, Claude W. Leister, a biology instructor at Cornell University, as Assistant to the Director and Curator of Educational Activities.

Blair was committed to wildlife protection, and for many years held the position of Executive Secretary of the American Committee for International Wildlife Protection. He served as Professor of Comparative Pathology at New York University’s Veterinary College. In 1940, he received a Merit Citation from the Park Association of New York City.


52.4 Linear Feet (131 Hollinger boxes)

0.83 Cubic Feet (1 flat box)

Language of Materials



William T. Hornaday (1854-1937) was the first Director of the New York Zoological Park, from 1896 until his retirement in 1926. W. Reid Blair (1875-1949), Veterinarian from 1902 to 1922 and Assistant Director beginning in 1922, directed the Zoo from 1926 until 1940. These records consist of incoming correspondence (and sometimes carbon copies or drafts of outgoing correspondence), staff memoranda, reports, and working papers reflecting the planning, policies, and day-to-day operations administered by the Director and General Curator of the Zoological Park. Also prominently represented is correspondence regarding animal sales to the zoo, the zoo’s construction, the New York Zoological Society's management of the New York Aquarium, and the National Collection of Heads and Horns (held at the New York Zoological Park). In addition to other New York Zoological Society officers such as William Beebe, Lee S. Crandall, Raymond L. Ditmars, Madison Grant, and Henry Fairfield Osborn, the notable correspondents in this collection include prominent figures in wildlife conservation and zoo history.


This collection is arranged into two series:

Series 1
Records, 1895-1940, arranged by correspondence and subject files in two subseries:
(1A) Correspondence and subject files, 1895-1910
(1B) Correspondence and subject files, 1911-1940
Series 2
Papers, 1896-1940, arranged into nine subseries:
(2A) Agreements and contracts, 1899-1907, alphabetical
(2B) Animal dealers and taxidermists, 1896-1906, alphabetical
(2C) National Collection of Heads and Horns, 1907-1940
(2D) Zoological Park Defense Committee, circa 1917
(2E) Hirshfield complaint, 1918-1920
(2F) Park officers reports, 1899-1913
(2G) Director's Office reports, 1926-1940
(2H) Additional records, 1899-1939
(2I) Visual materials

Acquisition Information

Internal transfer.

Related Collections

Collection 1001. William T. Hornaday and W. Reid Blair incoming correspondence and subject files, 1895-1939.

Collection 1007. William T. Hornaday papers, 1888-1937.

Collection 1010. Willilam T. Hornaday American Bison Society records, 1905-1934.

Collection 1012. William T. Hornaday and W. Reid Blair outgoing correspondence, 1895-1939.

Collection 1023. William T. Hornaday Camp-Fire Club of America records, 1903-1914.

Collection 1033. William T. Hornaday scrapbooks, circa 1896-1927.

The Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress also holds a collection of William T. Hornaday's personal papers.

Guide to the incoming correspondence and subject files of the New York Zoological Park Directors William T. Hornaday and W. Reid Blair, 1895-1940
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Repository Details

Part of the Wildlife Conservation Society Archives Repository

WCS Library/Archives
2300 Southern Blvd
Bronx New York 10460 United States