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Teetering on the Brink of Extinction: The Passenger Pigeon, the Bison, and American Zoo Culture in the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries

Teetering on the Brink of Extinction: The Passenger Pigeon, the Bison, and American Zoo Culture in the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries

Chapter:
(p.51) Chapter Four Teetering on the Brink of Extinction: The Passenger Pigeon, the Bison, and American Zoo Culture in the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries
Source:
The Ark and Beyond
Author(s):
Mark V. Barrow
Publisher:
University of Chicago Press
DOI:10.7208/chicago/9780226538631.003.0005

This chapter examines how American zoological gardens responded to the rapid, nearly simultaneous decline of two iconic species at the turn of the nineteenth century: the bison and the passenger pigeon. The North American continent once supported extensive populations of both species, which inspired awe and wonder in the European settlers who encountered them. During the second half of the nineteenth century, however, habitat destruction, competition from exotic species, and especially large-scale commercial exploitation facilitated by newly constructed rail networks produced dramatic declines in both populations. As a result, the bison and the passenger pigeon were both facing extinction by the end of the nineteenth century. Wildlife conservationists successfully mobilized to save the bison, and the New York Zoological Park (opened in 1899) began a captive bison herd that helped repopulate several newly created federal reserves in the West. They failed, however, to rally behind the passenger pigeon, and the last known specimen perished at the Cincinnati Zoo on September 1, 1914. The New York Zoological Park’s captive breeding experiments proved the exception rather than the rule during this period, when zoos remained primarily focused on entertaining and educating the public, rather than trying to save endangered species.

Keywords:   extinction, captive breeding, American bison, passenger pigeon, commodification, wildlife conservation, New York Zoological Park, Cincinnati Zoo

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