Believe it or Not, Yosemite National Park Once had a Zoo

Jay C. Bruce, California’s official State Lion Hunter, donated three lions to Yosemite National Park in April 1918. National Park Service Historic Photograph Collection.

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.

Comments

My great-aunt, Hazel Carpenter, lived in Yosemite Valley in the 1920's while her husband was employed by Curry Company. She once told me the park also had elephants during her time there, kept for the same purpose, and they were eventually removed because they were not "natural". I have not been able to substantiate this story, and I would love to know whether we really indeed once upon a time had elephants in Yosemite Valley. Your story of a park zoo leads me to believe we might have!

Liz, I'm afraid that I can't answer your question. I do know that there's an Elephant Rock in Yosemite! I also know of a book that may be of some help. In his classic Yosemite: The Embattled Wilderness (1990), Alfred Runte discussed the Yosemite zoo, and I think he included some photos of it as well. (BTW, I reviewed that book for a journal back in 1992, but I no longer have the review copy; I think I may have given it to a student.) Runte covers a lot of ground in the book, but there's a good deal of information about the park's management in the 1920s. If you can't get that book through your library, you'll find copies available through Amazon.com and other sources.

Yellowstone also had a zoo at one time. The boat concessionaire E.C. Waters set up a zoo on Dot Island in Yellowstone Lake.

You've got a good memory, Anon. That zoo on Dot Island in Yellowstone Lake was shut down 102 years ago after operating for about 10 or 11 years.

I have a picture that was in a box of old family photos, of a woman in a 1920's era dress, feeding a bear standing on it's hind legs from a presumable Coke bottle.

I'll bet there are hundreds of similar photos out there. (I vaguely recall seeing a photo of a ranger petting a deer in that Yosemite "zoo.") I'd especially like to see a photo of kids with the mountain lion.

Jay Cook Bruce was my great grand father. He was a great hunter and fisherman and left a legacy of conservationists. His son, my grandfather, taught my family to appreciate and conserve nature. I believe the dogs pictured above were Ranger, Duke and Scout.

The conservationist ethic is a great legacy, Redwood. I know that many people would find it odd that a professional lion hunter could be a conservationist, but I most emphatically do not. This was the 1920s, after all, a time when truly scientific wildlife management was a distant dream and getting rid of predators like lions and wolves was considered necessary for protecting livestock and human lives as well as insuring that hunters would have more deer and elk to shoot.

It's the people who see nature's workings up close and personal who are most likely to gain an appreciation for its wonders and learn the importance of interacting with wild species and their habitat in responsible ways. Some of the most ardent conservationists in the first half of the 20th century were people who had killed lions and wolves. That even includes "environmental saints" like Aldo Leopold.

Grinnel was wrong. The Zoo was a good idea, but likely failed because of a circus like atmosphere...there's a small Zoo in Merced...see blog page....the mandate of the Parks is to provide education about wilderness...and they haven't much nowadays to display wildlife...except the stuffed dusty critters over in the Wilderness Center...small Zoos fill a niche that needs filling.

David

Grinnel wasn't wrong, and neither are the stewards of today's National Park System. National parks preserve habitat, enabling visitors to encounter animals and birds in their "natural" surroundings and watch them interact with each other. Holding wild animals in captivity for the entertainment of visitors is a practice that falls far, far outside the national park mission.

My son, a huge hunting and fishing enthusiast since he was very small, HATES to read! Generally doesn't understand what he reads because of his lack of ability to read well. I subscribe to most all hunting magazines, he will sit down with those an read. So, anything I can do to encourage his reading I do. He has never mentioned ANY book he would like to read, until the other day...."Cougar Killer"! He was reading, I read some to him, the Feb.2010 American Hunter article on your great-grandfather, Jay C. Bruce. I'm wondering if you, or anyone, might know where I could find an autographed copy of "Cougar Killer"?? I love being able to pass on traditions and lore to my son, and if it gets him reading....even better! I searched high and low for an autographed copy on line to no avail. I found one place that has a copy of the book and will get that one if I do not receive any feedback here. THANK YOU for the bit of info on your great-grandfather and the picture above! I wish my son could have known my grand-father and great-grandfather, times have changed so. Lori

My stepfather was Maurice Jones in Placerville Ca. He was a good friend of Jay's who came to
visit us occasionally and brought his a copy of his then just published book. My mother was born
in Grub Guch and her family settled Freno Flats, Raymond, and Fish Camp. A lot of great memories!

Thanks for the picture of my greatuncle Jay Bruce. an reprint of his book can be
found on the internet. just google cougar killer. a seller in arizona has them.

Jay Bruce was my grandfather. I would appreciate if you would contact me. Was Will your grandfather?

Jay Bruce was my grandfather. I believe that Steve is my long, lost cousin.