In 1904, Theodore Roosevelt Won a Presidential Election…And a Pair of Ostriches

For President’s Day, learn the story behind the giant birds sent to Washington to celebrate Roosevelt’s reelection

Both ostriches still sport their original labels, which note their presidential pedigree, from when they arrived at the museum from the National Zoo. Jack Tamisiea, NMNH

On November 7, 1904, the Atlantic Ocean liner Minneapolis docked in New York City to much fanfare. Stored in the ship’s cargo was an exotic menagerie of live animals including two monkeys, a zebra, a lioness (a second one had died en route) and a towering pair of male Somali ostriches addressed to President Theodore Roosevelt.

The animals, which hailed from the Horn of Africa, were a gift from King Menelik II, the emperor of Abyssinia (present day Ethiopia). Menelik had sent them to president Roosevelt on the eve of his first reelection bid in 1904. The site of the ostriches deboarding the boat presented quite the spectacle. The following day, the New York Times ran the headline “MENELIK'S GIFTS HERE,” and reported that the “Abyssinian monarch wanted Mr. Roosevelt to get them to-day [sic], when, Menelik hopes, Mr. Roosevelt will be elected president.” Roosevelt would soon notch a commanding victory in the election.

One of the two ostriches president Theodore Roosevelt received in 1904, photographed here in the ostrich enclosure near the National Zoological Park’s old lion house, lived at the zoo for 26 years. Smithsonian Institution Archives

Roosevelt and Menelik were no strangers when it came to gift giving. In December, 1903, Menelik sent Roosevelt a letter thanking him for the two guns and typewriter the president had sent. In return, Menelik, who is remembered for repelling an Italian invasion and modernizing the region that would become Ethiopia, promised to send a pair of lions and a set of elephant tusks. He hoped to help “fortify…the friendly relations between our two countries,” which had blossomed during Roosevelt’s presidency.

 In March 1904, Menelik’s first batch of gifts arrived in Boston. Among them were the elephant tusks, a lion cub named Joe and a hyena named Bill. Neither Joe nor Bill endeared themselves to the crew of the ship. According to an account published on the front page of the New York Times on March 12, 1904, the lion cub had “left the marks of his teeth on several of the crew that came near him.” The story also mentioned that “the President will have his hands full” with the hyena because the “beast laughs nearly all the time.” His second shipment of animals in November caused less of a stir as they crossed the Atlantic.

In addition to the two ostriches, King Menelik also sent Roosevelt this zebra, photographed outside of the National Zoological Park's Antelope House, which lived at the zoo until 1919. Smithsonian Institution Archives

The two ostriches Roosevelt received from King Menelik, along with the zebra and lion, were bound for the National Zoological Park, where they arrived on November 24, 1904. They were among the first of several wild presidential gifts to end up at the National Zoo. Calvin Coolidge donated several animals including a raccoon and a pygmy hippopotamus from Liberia named Billy (not to be confused with Roosevelt’s hyena, Bill, who also ended up at the National Zoo) and Shanthi, a young female Asian elephant, ended up at the National Zoo after being given as a diplomatic gift from the Sri Lankan ambassador to Jimmy Carter’s family in 1977.

Menelik’s gift ostriches were not the last time Roosevelt came across these big birds. After he finished his second term, Roosevelt embarked on a Smithsonian-sponsored expedition in 1909 to eastern Africa with several prominent field naturalists. Their goal was to procure specimens for the United States National Museum, the precursor to the National Museum of Natural History. Over the next two years, the Smithsonian-Roosevelt African Expedition collected thousands of specimens, a couple of which are still on display today, including a white rhinoceros in the museum’s Hall of Mammals and a male lion and pair of shoebill storks in Objects of Wonder.

Theodore Roosevelt (standing immediately to the left of the American flag) and his team pose for a picture during their African expedition in 1909. Smithsonian Institution Archives

The Smithsonian expedition provided Roosevelt a chance to observe ostriches up close in the wild. In an article published in the June, 1918 edition of The Atlantic, Roosevelt mentions several instances when he came across brooding ostriches sitting on their eggs. He also made note of their “curious waltzing or gyrating,” concluding that their elaborate dancing was “calculated to attract the attention of every beast or bird that possessed eyesight.”

This firsthand experience helped make the 26th president an expert source on ostriches, the world’s largest birds. In that same Atlantic article, Roosevelt critiqued several statements made in a popular article about ostriches. He took particular umbrage with the author’s assertion that an ostrich was just as dangerous to an unprotected man as a charging lion.

By simply “lying down, he escapes all danger,” Roosevelt wrote. “In such case, the bird may step on him, or sit on him; his clothes will be rumpled and his feelings injured; but he will suffer no bodily harm.” Roosevelt concluded that someone taking a dive in front of a hungry lion wouldn’t be so lucky.

A family of ostriches collected during the Smithsonian-Roosevelt African Expedition is displayed in the United States National Museum in 1910. Smithsonian Institution Archives

One of Roosevelt’s ostriches was estimated to be around 35 when it arrived at the zoo. Remarkably, it lived in Washington for another 26 years. Due to its extremely advanced age, the giant bird had been blind for several years before it died on December 3, 1930.

Soon afterwards, it arrived at the National Museum of Natural History. Like other specimens, it was given a number and outfitted with labels to help collection staff keep track of it within the museum’s bird collection. Its scaly skin and fuzzy, black and white plumage are deposited alongside the remains of the other ostrich Menelik sent (which died in early 1910) in a cabinet of oversized drawers housing the biggest birds the avian world has to offer.

Christopher Milensky, the collection manager of the museum’s bird division, examines the tag on one of the Roosevelt ostrich specimens. Jack Tamisiea, NMNH

Here, the ostrich specimens are easily accessible to researchers ranging from ornithologists to historians. As part of the museum’s bird collection, these presidential ostriches have become the scientific gift that keeps giving.

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