Believe it or Not, Yosemite National Park Once had a Zoo
Tourists visiting Yosemite National Park in the 1920s could view mountain lions, a bear, and deer kept in cages and enclosures. Despite drawing heated criticism, this wacky zoo persisted for more than a decade before finally being abolished in 1932.
Back in 1918 the National Park Service was just two years old, lacked experienced managers, and had only the most basic understanding of what national parka are and how they ought to be managed. The Department of Interior had supplied the new agency with an administrative policy statement, but it spelled out the Park Service’s mission in only the broadest of terms and provided no specific guidance at all for wildlife management. (Indeed, it did not even once mention the word "wildlife.") In such an environment, it’s a foregone conclusion that some boneheaded decisions would be made.
You’d have to go a long way to top the Yosemite National Park “zoo” for sheer inappropriateness. Even back then, long before scientific principles of park management were adopted, many park advocates (and not a few Yosemite National Park visitors) were shaking their heads and wondering “what can they be thinking?!”.
This fiasco started very quietly in late April 1918 when Jay C. Bruce, California’s State Lion Hunter, gave the park three mountain lion cubs he retrieved from the den of a female lion he had killed in the park near Wawona. Two of the kittens apparently died, but one female (the “Wawona lioness”) survived and was put in a cage for public display in Yosemite Valley. In a separate cage were two lions from Yellowstone National Park. A bear and some deer were added to the menagerie. The nondescript assortment of cages and enclosures that resulted from these ad hoc decisions was, for all practical purposes, a zoo. Thus it was that Yosemite’s zoo “just sort of happened.”
The Wawona lioness was the Yosemite zoo's prime attraction. Unlike the two Yellowstone lions, which were considered “disagreeable,” the Wawona lioness had been bottle-fed as a kitten and was very tame. Some visitors, including children, were allowed to enter her cage and play with her. She would chase a ball in playful fashion like a domestic cat.
Although she kept her claws retracted when pawing at exposed skin or clothing, she sometimes startled people by jumping on their backs -- presumably because that's what lions are programmed to do when attacking their prey.
Various NPS officials and scientists -- most conspicuously prominent U. Cal-Berkeley zoologist Dr. Joseph Grinnell, originator of the concept “ecological niche” -- decried the existence of a zoo at Yosemite. Keeping wild animals in cages was not only morally indefensible, they said, but also inconsistent with the Park Service mission to preserve and protect park resources in their natural condition.
As years passed, it became obvious that establishing a zoo at Yosemite had been a big mistake. Finally, in November 1932, Yosemite’s zoo was abolished. Few people who visit the park today know that it ever existed, or that such a thing could ever have existed in any national park.
Postscript: There is a bizarre twist to this story. When the NPS got rid of the zoo at Yosemite, Acting NPS Director Horace Albright OKed the killing of the three remaining mountain lions. Two of the lion pelts were then sent to the California State Fish and Game Commission in behalf of State Lion Hunter Jay Bruce. It was in this way that Bruce was finally able to collect bounties that would have been due to him if he hadn’t donated those lion cubs to the park 14 years before.