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Bison, seen here behind the Smithsonian Institution, are credited as the first animals acquired by the National Zoo, then known as the Department of Living Animals, in the 1880s.

Smithsonian Institution Archives,

Steve Sarro, curator at the National Zoo, fed biscuits to one of the two new female bison donated to the facility by the American Prairie Reserve in Montana.

Yue Wu • Washington Post,

National Zoo welcomes two bison to its family

  • Article by: Ileana Najarro
  • Washington Post
  • September 1, 2014 - 6:36 PM

Bao Bao, the National Zoo’s famous panda cub, can now properly greet her new neighbors.

Zora and Wilma, two female American bison that moved into the zoo in July as part of its 125th anniversary, were officially named last week by students from Howard University and Gallaudet University.

The purebred buffaloes’ arrival in Washington marks the first time in more than a decade that the zoo is once again home to American bison, the animal credited with getting the institution started in the 1880s.

“It’s an iconic species both in the country and here at the zoo,” zookeeper Marty Dearie said.

The two bison, a little more than a year old, are also iconic at both Howard and Gallaudet, where the American bison serves as mascot.

Students at the schools were asked to vote on the names. Student body presidents for both universities announced the winning names at a news media event last Wednesday.

Zora was named after Howard alumna Zora Neale Hurston, a prominent writer and civil rights activist. Wilma was named after Gallaudet graduate Wilma Newhoudt-Druchen, the first deaf woman elected to serve in South Africa’s Parliament.

“Wouldn’t it be great to get them on our campus?” asked Andrew Morrill, the student body president at Gallaudet. In the spirit of competition, Leighton Watson — Morrill’s counterpart at Howard — said the two bison should race.

Getting settled in

Should Watson’s lighthearted suggestion come true, Zora and Wilma racing would make for a show, given that bison can outrun horses. Being athletic animals, they can also jump 6 feet straight up, said Damien Austin, supervisor of the American Prairie Reserve in Montana, where Zora and Wilma were born.

On Wednesday, however, Zora and Wilma spent most of their time slowly walking across their grassy yard, grazing along the way. Zora weighs 550 pounds, while Wilma cuts a more svelte figure at 500 pounds.

“They are basically built to be eating constantly,” Dearie said.

Dearie added that Zora and Wilma have demonstrated calm temperaments with each other and their keepers.

“They both are very eager to interact with their keepers, which is amazing to me,” Dearie said. “They follow us around like dogs.”

While Austin acknowledged it will be tough for Zora and Wilma to compete with the zoo’s panda family for popularity, he still expects the two to draw crowds.

“We hope they put up a good fight,” Austin said.

The public’s first opportunity to visit Zora and Wilma was Saturday.

© 2014 Star Tribune