Histories of WCS written by its staff have tended to offer a perspective that focuses on the organization’s accomplishments, as the history below does. When WCS recognized its 125th anniversary in 2020, it also addressed its historical role in promoting racial injustice. This includes the treatment of Ota Benga and the racist, eugenics-based ideals perpetuated by two of WCS’s founders, Madison Grant and Henry Fairfield Osborn. Archival material related to Ota Benga and his display at the Bronx Zoo’s Monkey House for several days during the week of September 8, 1906 has previously been made available to researchers and is now also available online. For further reading and resources, including the statements released by WCS, visit RECKONING WITH OUR PAST, PRESENT, AND FUTURE.
The Wildlife Conservation Society was chartered by New York on April 26, 1895 as the New York Zoological Society with a mandate to advance wildlife conservation, promote the study of zoology, and create a first-class zoological park. Its name was changed to the Wildlife Conservation Society in 1993.
Among the founders of WCS were Andrew H. Green, Henry Fairfield Osborn, and Madison Grant. Theodore Roosevelt and other notable New Yorkers were also involved in the Society's creation.
The Bronx Zoo (formerly known as the New York Zoological Park) was designed along the lines of other cultural icons in New York City, such as the American Museum of Natural History. The city provided the land for the new zoo and some funding for buildings and annual operating costs. WCS raised most of the funds for construction and operations from private donors and selected the scientific and administrative personnel.
To direct the effort to build the zoo, WCS selected naturalist William T. Hornaday, well known as a founder of the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. Hornaday chose the Bronx site for the zoo and selected curators, keepers, and other staff who helped open the facility on November 8, 1899.
The success of the Bronx Zoo fostered stronger ties with the city government. In 1902, WCS took over management of the New York Aquarium, then located at Battery Park in Manhattan, and in 1957 opened a new aquarium at Coney Island, Brooklyn.
During the 1960s and 1970s, WCS took a leadership role in pioneering zoological exhibitions by seeking to recreate natural environments for the animals on display in such exhibitions as the World of Birds and Wild Asia.
Eventually New York City turned to WCS to renew and manage the three city-run zoos. The redesigned Central Park Zoo opened in 1988, followed by the Queens Zoo in 1992, and the Prospect Park Zoo in 1993.
A Legacy of Protecting Wildlife and Wild Places
Even before the Bronx Zoo opened its gates, WCS was at the forefront of conservation and field research. Zoo Director William T. Hornaday carried out a direct-mail survey of wildlife conditions through the United States and publicized the decline of birds and mammals in the organization's annual reports. In 1897, WCS hired field researcher Andrew J. Stone to survey the condition of wildlife in the territory of Alaska. On the basis of these studies, WCS led the campaign for new laws to protect the wildlife there and across the United States.
In 1905, WCS leaders joined with others to create the American Bison Society, which led a national campaign to reintroduce the almost extinct bison to government-sponsored refuges. The Bronx Zoo sent 15 bison to Wichita Reserve in 1907 and additional bison in later years. The saving of this uniquely American symbol is one of the great success stories in the history of wildlife conservation.
William Beebe, the Bronx Zoo's first curator of birds, began a program of field research soon after the Bronx Zoo opened. His research on wild pheasants took him to Asia from 1908 to 1911 and resulted in a series of books. Beebe's fieldwork also resulted in the creation of WCS's Department of Tropical Research, which he began directing in 1916, leading ecological expeditions across tropical regions.
Beebe's research in an undersea vessel called the bathysphere took him a record-setting half a mile under the ocean off Bermuda in 1934 to record for the first time human observations of the deep sea. The bathysphere is currently displayed at the New York Aquarium.
After World War II, under the leadership of Fairfield Osborn, one of the foremost conservationists of the era, the organization expanded its programs in field biology and conservation. In 1946 WCS helped found the Jackson Hole Wildlife Park, which became part of the Grand Teton National Park in 1962.
In the late 1950s WCS began a series of wildlife surveys and projects in Kenya, Tanganyika (now Tanzania), Uganda, Ethiopia, Sudan, Burma, and the Malay peninsula. In 1959 it sponsored George Schaller's seminal study of mountain gorillas in Congo. Since that expedition, Schaller has gone on to become the world's preeminent field biologist, studying wildlife throughout Africa, Asia, and South America.
The conservation activities of the Bronx Zoo and WCS continued to expand under the leadership of William Conway, who became director of the Bronx Zoo in 1962 and President of WCS in 1992. Active as a field biologist in Patagonia, Conway promoted a new vision of zoos as conservation organizations, which cooperated in breeding endangered species. He also designed new types of zoo exhibits aimed at teaching visitors about habitats that support wildlife, and he encouraged the expansion of WCS's field programs.
Today, in addition to managing the world's largest network of urban wildlife parks, WCS works in nearly 60 countries and all of the world's oceans in order to save wildlife and the wild places in which they live.