Wednesday, January 07, 2004

Not from the Zoo ...

After an e-mail exchange with the curator of the new Behring Family Hall of Mammals at the National Museum of Natural History, I'm happy to learn I was wrong in my suspicions about the origin of the two Masai giraffes in the exhibit.

A few weeks ago, Evelin and I went to The Mall to see the new hall, and I was surprised to see two Masai giraffes on exhibit in the hall knowing that the National Zoo had lost two Masai giraffes in recent years. Not that I thought there was anything untoward going on or anything; both the museum and the zoo are part of the Smithsonian and it would make sense that the museum might have access to the bodies of the zoo animals after their death.

In fact, some of the animals in the new hall did come from the zoo, according to press reports and a National Zoo zookeeper who had visited the hall, but both of the giraffes came from other sources.

The National Museum of Natural History has the largest mammal collection in the world with roughly 580,000 voucher specimens and 3,500 primary type specimens, according to the museum website. (The Natural History Museum, London is the only larger collection of primary type specimens.) The USNM mammal collection (the USNM acronym comes from the old name of the museum, "United States National Museum") was developed over centuries:
The oldest originated from the activities of the U.S. Exploring Expedition, dating from 1838-1842, and the personal collection of Spencer Fullerton Baird (the second Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution), also from the 1840s. While collection growth was modest in the early years, a number of mammals were collected by government expeditions conducting surveys in the western United States from the 1850s-1870s. A significant portion of the North American collection resulted from the Biological Survey program initiated by C. Hart Merriam and conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (later the Department of Interior) in the 1890s-1930s. Around the turn of the century William L. Abbott made large collections of mammals from central and southeast Asia. The Smithsonian African Expedition acquired many specimens from east Africa (1909-1911), some of which were collected by former President Theodore Roosevelt. Finally, during the 1960s, large field programs surveying mammals as disease vectors, such as the Smithsonian Venezuelan Project and the African Mammal Project, added more than 100,000 specimens to the USNM mammal collection.
The new hall drew upon existing animals from the Smithsonian's collection, but many are new to the collection, including 25 from the private collection of Kenneth E. Behring (the donor whose name is on the new hall). According to a Washington Post article about the hall, "Behring is an avid big-game hunter and has been criticized by animal welfare groups for hunting endangered animals. In 1999, the Smithsonian found itself in a huge flap when he offered four rare Asian sheep he had shot in Kazakhstan two years earlier -- an offer the institution ultimately declined." Among the Behring-donated animals in the new hall are a kudu, buffalo, wild boar, giraffe, leopard, lion, black-backed jackal and Chinese water deer.

According to The Smithsonian magazine The white rhino on display was shot by Theodore Roosevelt in 1909. That rhino, along with the tiger, hippo, and South American tapir came from the old mammal displays. "The rest of the specimens—including the orangutan, which came from the National Zoo—are more recently departed residents of zoos, game preserves and research facilities. The hall's 202-pound female gorilla spent six years at the Buffalo Zoo in Buffalo, New York, before being euthanized in July 1999 because of stomach cancer."

According to The Holland Sentinel, "To round up other rare specimens, the curators sent word to animal parks, game preserves, zoos, research facilities and private collectors, as well as the National Zoo and the Conservation and Research Center at Front Royal, Va. The okapi came from the Brookville Zoo in Chicago. Intense negotiations preceded the acquisitions of the platypus and koalas from Australia."

The reason the question of using zoo animals came up owes a lot to a flap in 1999 over plans to stuff and mount Hsing-Hsing*, one of the two Giant Pandas presented to the United States by the People's Republic of China in the 1970s. Originally, the museum planned to put Hsing-Hsing on display in the Rotunda, which is the current home of an African elephant, but public outcry changed plans: "... officials decided to exhibit the animal in a mock-up of its native bamboo-forest environment. That will be more educational, [museum spokesman Randall Kremer] said, but also will take more time." Ultimately, the decision was made not to exhibit Hsing-Hsing "because many people did not think it was an appropriate fate for such a beloved animal." The panda that is on display in the new mammal hall "came from China decades ago."

*In the interest of again examining a panda name, I'll note that Hsing-Hsing is the Wade-Giles version of 星星. If Hsing-Hsing were to come to the National Zoo today, he would have been known to visitors as Xing1 Xing1, using the pinyin transliteration. The name, no matter the transliteration, means "bright star" or "shining star." By itself 星 (Xing1) means "star."

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