Last fall, contractors renovating the National Zoo’s Elephant House were about to pour a layer of concrete when Tim Buehner, the Zoo’s design manager, arrived. “We came in to inspect it before the pour,” Buehner says, “and we said, ‘Hey, there’s a box in there.’ ” After some poking around in a hole in a wall, workers extracted a copper container about the size of a shoe box.
When they pried it open, they found a stack of aging Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus programs, a copy of the May 17, 1936, Washington Post and a crumbling pair of lists of the then-new Elephant House’s imminent inhabitants from Zoo director William Mann. What the workers had discovered was a 75-year-old time capsule.
Back when the Elephant House was built, Mann was famous for his grand collecting expeditions and offbeat fund-raising antics—he routinely brought animals to budget meetings with the Smithsonian regents and once trained a myna bird to keep asking, “How about the appropriation?” Along with his wife, Lucy, who wrote popular books and articles about their journeys, “Doc” Mann built the Zoo into one of international renown, expanding its collections and advancing standards of care for captive animals nationwide.
It’s fitting, then, that the capsule was discovered during the Zoo’s efforts to convert the old Elephant House into a modern indoor living space for its three Asian elephants. “The first two inhabitants of this facility were a pair of Asian elephants named Dunk and Gold Dust,” says Tony Barthel, curator of elephants at the Zoo. “And we’ve always had a big commitment to them, both here in the zoo setting and in the field, because they’re so endangered.” (Since the house was built in 1936, wild Asian elephant populations have declined by about 50 percent because of habitat loss and degradation, leading to their listing by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as endangered.) Along with a new outdoor area that features pools, sand pits and a quarter-mile-long forested walking trail, the building will provide a habitat that allows the animals ample space to roam as a herd. “The original building had a large indoor public space, with animals on the perimeter, and we’ve flipped that dynamic on its head,” Barthel says. “Inside, the bulk of the space is now an open elephant enclosure, and the public is limited to the edge.” The renovation is part of the Elephant Trails project, an endeavor to conserve the species through education, breeding efforts, satellite-based tracking of wild populations and research into elephant genetics and population biology.
The project echoes Mann’s tenure as director. He was obsessed with circuses—at the age of 9, he had tried to run away from his Helena, Montana, home to join one—and concerned with the treatment of the kinds of animals that performed in them. “He constructed bigger, more naturalistic enclosures, where animals could behave in more natural ways, and he hired the Zoo’s first full-time veterinary staff,” says Pamela Henson, a historian at the Smithsonian Institution Archives. “He was really concerned about their health and welfare as individuals.” When the Elephant House opened, a Post account called it “the last word in elephant houses.”
Before the renovated building opens next year, its staff members will prepare a time capsule of their own, including letters from scientists and curators about the critical status of elephants today, an article from the Zoo’s magazine about 64-year-old resident elephant Ambika and a copy of the Washington Post from the day the capsule is hidden for another generation to find. “My letter is about my hopes for the future for elephants, and our philosophy about building this facility around the herd,” Barthel says. “What I’m hoping is that someday someone reads this and looks around and sees that these ideas have worked.”