Just east of Morrill Hall on the Iowa State campus is a small granite boulder with a bronze plaque dedicated to William Hornaday. This early Iowa State College graduate had an extraordinary career as a collector of wildlife, as a taxidermist and later as a staunch defender of wildlife.
Hornaday was born in Plainfield, Indiana, but was raised on a farm near Eddyville, Iowa and later near Knoxville. He attended Iowa State College under a county scholarship in 1872. He became a student of Charles Bessey, the noted botanist and zoologist. During his first year at Iowa State, president A.S. Welch offered a ten dollar reward and a job as a taxidermist to any student who could mount a specimen for the college museum. Hornaday borrowed a rifle, shot a squirrel, and mounted it. Welch saw it and decided it was not good enough for the museum. Undaunted by this first try, Bessey gave him another chance. A local farmer had shot a white pelican and Hornaday undertook the challenge. That white pelican can be found today in the collection in Zoology II at Iowa State.
Bessey told Hornaday about the Wards Scientific in Rochester, New York which was noted for the taxidermy work it performed for museums around the world. With Bessey’s recommendation Hornaday began a ten-year career with Wards and made collecting trips to Florida, Cuba, India, Ceylon, Malaya and Borneo. He then became chief taxidermist and later director of the U.S. National Museum (Smithsonian) where he practiced his mission of “bringing wildlife to millions.” While working at the museum Hornaday came into contact with many influential individuals, including big game hunter and future president, Theodore Roosevelt.
In 1886, Hornaday traveled to Montana to collect bison specimens for the museum, but became gravely concerned about the future of this once abundant species in North America. Its drastic decline occurred in the previous decade by the wanton slaughter of the species by hide hunters. Twenty years earlier bison herds were estimated to be 10 or 15 million. At the time of Hornaday’s trip west it was estimated that only 1000 roamed the west.
Hornaday had a vision of a “living collection” for the Smithsonian and his vision would become the National Zoo. His vision included naturalistic enclosures rather than barred cages, but his vision clashed with the Smithsonian president and he resigned. Hornaday took a position with a friend who was a land developer in Buffalo, New York. Hornaday was recruited to head the newly formed New York Zoological Society to develop the zoo generally known as the Bronx Zoo.
It was here that Hornaday participated in campaigns to repopulate bison herds in the American west. Between 1907 and 1919 bison raised at the zoo were released in nine herds from Oklahoma to Montana. He also worked with congressional members to bring legislation protecting migratory birds. Over-hunting of birds to adorn women’s hats and fashions led one fellow Iowan, Congressman John Fletcher Lacey to push the Lacey Bird Law in 1900 that placed prohibitions, limits, and seasons protecting migratory fowl. Further protections were secured by the Weeks-McLean Act in 1913 and the “Duck Stamp Act” in 1934. In 1913, Hornaday worked with Congress to establish the Permanent Wildlife Protection Fund.
Hornaday was concerned about market hunting and the lethal effect of automatic and pump shotguns on waterfowl. He proposed a total ban on waterfowl hunting for two years to President Franklin Roosevelt. Instead Roosevelt supported a three shot limit in repeating shotguns and thus the term “duck plug” came into being. This is a regulation that survives to this day.
Hornaday returned to Iowa State College in 1929 see the unveiling of the small monument acknowledging his contributions to wildlife. He created an award for the Boy Scouts of America in 1915 called the Wildlife Protection Medal. After his death in 1937 it was renamed the William T. Hornaday Award and it is still presented today.
Bechtel, Stefan. Mr. Hornaday’s War: How a Peculiar Victorian Zookeeper Waged a Lonely Crusade for Wildlife that Changed the World. Beacon Press, Boston, 2012.
Dehler, Gregory J. The Most Defiant Devil: William Hornaday and His Controversial Crusade to Save American Wildlife. University of Virginia Press, 2013.
Hornaday, William T. “John F. Lacey.” The Annals of Iowa 11 (1915), 582-584.
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