It should be no secret at this point that I basically live and breathe museums and want to know everything about how they work while working in and for and about them. This is how this story began. I decided to start using my free time to go to Library and Archives Canada to collect everything I possibly could that pertained in someway to Canada’s national museums. Collecting broadly and without a particular focus, I was open to whatever stories presented themselves to me and caught my attention. One of the first files that I collected was titled simply, “Specimens of wood bison for Victoria Memorial Museum.”
The Victoria Memorial Museum Building, first opened in 1912, was Canada’s first national museum. The first occupant of the space was the Geological Survey of Canada, and the early collection on display consisted of the rocks and fossils that made up the Survey’s large collection. As many know, the fire that consumed the Centre Block of Parliament in 1916 transformed the space again as it temporarily homed the House of Commons and the Senate (1). By 1927 the building hosted both the National Museum of Canada and the Geological Survey, who shared the space despite now being separate entities. After many more identity changes, the building became what it is now, the Canadian Museum of Nature (2).
When the space was officially designated as the National Museum of Canada in 1927, the focus was on conducting rigorous scientific research about Canada’s natural world. The public displays and exhibitions found within the museum of the specimens collected were a bi-product of this research. It was at this time, and with this focus in mind, that Dr. Rudolph Martin Anderson -chief of the Division of Biology at the National Museum of Canada- and Dr. Charles Camsell -Deputy Minister of Mines, and Dr. Seymour Hadwen – Department of Veterinary Science at the University of Saskatchewan, had a shared interest in embarking on an expedition. They requested permission from the Department of the Interior to enter Wood Buffalo Park in northern Alberta. The scientists planned to travel to the region “to take and bring out one specimen of adult bull Wood Buffalo…including skin and skeleton, for scientific purposes for the National Museum of Canada.” (3) In addition to a Wood Buffalo specimen each, one for the National Museum and one for the University of Saskatchewan, the party planned to observe other species of mammals and birds in the park, and offered to provide any information collected to the Department of the Interior (4).
During this period, the National Museum of Canada worked to find specimens of all of the major species of mammals and birds across the country. The Museum aimed to bring the wildlife to Canadians by showing them the specimens carefully researched and displayed in dioramas that reflected the habitats that could be found across Canada. This helped to educate visitors about the wildlife of the country and offered a space to display the large collection of specimens and extensive scientific research that the employees of the museum undertook. It also helped to showcase the work of the Museum in a way which encouraged continued support (5)
The expedition was granted permission on August 4, 1927:
The group was required to have the specimen taken by a game warden or, at the very least, in the presence of the game warden that the Department assigned to accompany them. They were also permitted to take up to four specimens each of other mammals and non-migratory birds that they found while on their expedition.
Anderson reported that he left Ottawa for the trip on August 26, 1927 and was joined by Dr. Hadwen in Saskatoon. When they arrived at the park, they were accompanied by Chief Warden M. J. Dempsey, who was assigned to supervise and help the party on the expedition (6). If this is all sounding a bit too glamorous so far, have a look at the rations list that the team sustained themselves on for almost two months (in addition to the buffalo meat they procured from their specimens):
The correspondence indicated that they successfully got a specimens that the scientists were happy with, and when they received the specimens at their respective institutions and were able to examine the material more closely, both buffalo were tuberculosis-free. This was an extremely positive result because, as Dr. Hadwen explained, it indicated that the entire herd was healthy and free of tuberculosis:
“This is written just on the eve of our departure from Fort Smith. I wish to thank you and your staff for the privilege you have granted to our University to collect a specimen of a Wood Buffalo. I would like to mention the courtesy and friendly help given to me by Mr. G. D. Murphy and also from Mr. M. J. Dempsey during our trip through the Park. Mr. Dempsey I may say is one of the most efficient and hard working woodmen I have met. There is little for me to say about the health of the two Wood Buffalo we shot. Both bulls were entirely free from tuberculosis as I expected and I only found a very few small round worms in the stomach of one of them. In the Wainwright bull killed by Dr. Anderson I found considerable disease of both lungs due to lung worms, but no evidence of tuberculosis.” (7)
Dr. Hadwen’s letter illustrates one of the primary reasons for the Department of the Interior to grant such an expedition. Taking two specimens not only contributed to the education and advocation for Canada’s wildlife, but it also generated valuable scientific data about the health of the population. Wait, weren’t they only supposed to take one Wood Buffalo each? Why is Hadwen talking about a Wainwright Buffalo?
Well, as it turns out, the expedition had a bit of a case of mistaken identity while they were looking for their specimens. In a memorandum to the Department of the Interior shortly after the return of the expedition, it was noted that “Dr. Anderson seems to have killed a Wainwright bull as well as a Wood Buffalo one. Was there any understanding that he would take a Wainwright animal? If so what was his authority?” (8) Upon receipt of the memorandum, Oswald S. Finnie, the director of the Department, wrote to the District Agent in Fort Smith, John A. McDougal, saying that “it is not understood why, or under what circumstances, the Wainwright animal was taken” (9). He noted that the incident should have been reported to the Department immediately, and requested a full report of the expedition as explanation (10).
In the report Anderson provided, he gave a full account of the incident, which occurred on September 22, 1927.
McDougal confirmed this account in a letter to Finnie in which he stated that the Wainwright bull had been mistaken for a Wood Buffalo by both Dr. Anderson and Sousa and that, while an accident, the killing proved to have positive scientific interest by confirming that the herd was free of tuberculosis. He went as far as to repeat the recommendation of Dr. Hadwen to kill off a small number of Wainwrights from time to time in different areas of the park in order to regularly assess the health of the species (11)
Finnie seemed to accept this account, however he maintained that the incident should not have happened at all:
“As the party was accompanied by our Chief Game Warden and also by an experienced Indian Guide, who has always lived in that district, it is not understood why there should have been any mistake in the identity of the animals. It is hardly necessary to point out that greater care should be taken, in which case mistakes of this nature do not occur. However, since the Wainwright animal was taken it has been the means of assuring us that while there was considerable disease of both lungs, due to lung worms, yet there is no evidence of tuberculosis. It is very gratifying to have the assurance of Dr. Hadwen, who is a well known expert in such matters, that this particular animal, and quite likely the herd as a whole, is free of tuberculosis.” (12)
As Finnie and Hadwen indicated, the Wainwright Buffalo’s lungs were severely deteriorated by worms, and yet their main concern was whether or not the bull carried tuberculosis. Tuberculosis in wild animals was in fact a long-standing concern in Canada. As Gary Wobeser indicates in his history of bovine tuberculosis in Canada, official efforts by the Canadian government to control the spread of bovine tuberculosis in cattle began in 1896, where it was first recognized in bison (13). Efforts to formally manage herds began in an effort to control the spread of the disease, and places like Buffalo National Park existed and were managed in a similar way to domestic cattle operations. This was the reason why the Park was protected, and Anderson and Hadwen had to request formal permits to begin with. The park wardens there protected the herd and were responsible for feeding them in winter, and generally monitoring their health and behavior (14).
The care provided to the herd meant that there was a rapid increase in the population. While this seems like it would be a good thing, the concern was that if tuberculosis did break out, there was the potential for a much larger population of bison to be effected by it:
“In 1923, when 6780 animals were counted, it was decided to slaughter surplus animals. Although ‘there was apparently no outward indication of tuberculosis’ until 1923, Parks Branch reports described the first case of tuberculosis in 1916. The Deputy Minister of Agriculture was asked for advice, which included segregation of all animals in poor condition from the herd. Three additional cases were diagnosed by 1920….[a]fter reviewing the 1923 cull, Dr. F. Torrance, Veterinary Director General, voiced the opinion that the BNP herd was so severely affected that efforts at eradication would be hopeless. Veterinarians involved in the slaughter were actively discouraged from reporting tuberculosis in the herd in scientific literature, although other less important lesions were described.” (15)
Anderson and Hadwen collected their bison specimens just a few years after the concern over a rise in tuberculosis became a crisis for the Canadian Government. Their findings that the bison they collected were free of the disease had implications for the state of health of the entire herd, as well as the effectiveness of efforts to eradicate the disease by the government.
When the bison specimen finally arrived at the National Museum, they were so pleased with the results of the expedition that they wrote the Department of the Interior a second time to request a female bison to complete the display. Collins, the Acting Director and author of the letter, explained that they did not request a female in the last expedition because they were already after two male bison, and felt that an additional female would have taxed the resources and time they had available. Collins noted that he was aware that the wardens of Wood Buffalo Park looked after the herd through the winter months and that Chief Warden Dempsey knew how to collect the skins and skeletons of bison for scientific purposes:
“I am informed that you are considering the killing of at least two Buffalo bulls during the coming winter in the northern area for food purposes to relieve destitution among the Indians, the killing to be done by the wardens of the Park. Would it not be possible to have the wardens of the Wood Buffalo Park take one specimen of Wood Buffalo cow for the National Museum of Canada while engaged in taking the two bulls, or to substitute one cow for one of the bulls to be killed? This could readily be done without any additional trouble for petrols and result in furnishing a much-desired specimen for the National collection. The skin and skeleton could be preserved for us, and practically all the meat be available for consumption locally.” (16)
The permit was granted, albeit somewhat reluctantly:
The Museum received the specimen of the female buffalo on July 27, 1928 (17).
After spending so much time with the story of these bison and the exhibit, I became curious about what happened to the bison specimens that had been such an undertaking for the Museum to acquire. An Ottawa resident myself, I have been to the Canadian Museum of Nature many times and have seen the current exhibit of the bison, but I assumed that the bison now on display was likely not one of the ones obtained by Dr. Anderson.
I had not confirmed yet whether the bison now on display is one of the bison acquired by Anderson, but I did manage to find out that those exact specimens are still part of the museum’s permanent collection:
While collecting material about the National Museum at Library and Archives Canada, I stumbled on this picture from “The Illustrated London News” from January 23, 1937. The picture shows the exhibit as it was in 1937, but in the caption it states that the bison were donated by Harry Snyder, a big game hunter from Chicago, who got the specimens from around the Slave Lake area (18)
I took the above photo of the current bison exhibit this afternoon. From what I can tell, it looks like the specimens that were on display in 1937 are in fact the exact same specimens on display right now in 2017. I took a few closer shots to try to compensate for the fact that they are angled slightly differently now.
I checked in the collection database, and confirmed that the bison Snyder donated are in fact still part of the permanent collection:
Based on this, I am *fairly* sure that the large male bison now on display, as well as the calf in the original exhibit from 1937 were Snyder’s donations. No female bison turned up when I searched Snyder’s name in the database, however, so it is possible that the female bison collected by Anderson ten years previously is the one pictured in the display in 1937 as well.
What this does mean, however, is that the bison display at the former National Museum of Canada has stayed basically the same, just parred down slightly, for 80 years.
Why the specimens collected by Anderson were switched for the ones donated by Snyder just 10 years later I have no idea. I am disappointed to say that I have not yet tracked down the Anderson specimens. Of course, the database indicates that they are still part of the permanent collection, but where that is held, and what the Anderson bison look like, I don’t know either.
I’m not satisfied that I have not been able to see Anderson’s bison for myself yet, or turn up any pictures of the exhibit, so I plan to continue the search and update this space if and when I find more.
- “First Tennants,” Canadian Museum of Nature, Ottawa, August 5, 2017.
- Canadian Museum of Nature, “Historical Timeline,” Accessed on August 5, 2017, http://nature.ca/en/about-us/history-buildings/historical-timeline
- R. M. Anderson, Chief, Division of Biology, National Museum of Canada to O. S. Finnie, Director, North West Territories and Yukon Branch, Department of the Interior, August 4, 1927, LAC RG 85-c-1-a Vol. 779 File 5761.
- O. S. Finnie to W. W. Cory, Deputy Minister, Department of the Interior., August 15, 1927, LAC RG 85-c-1-a Vol. 779 File 5761.
- National Museum of Canada, Annual Report for 1926, (Ottawa: The King’s Printer, 1928), 52.
- R. M. Anderson to O. S. Finnie, October 27, 1927, LAC RG 85-c-1-a Vol. 779 File 5761.
- S. Hadwen, Department of Veterinary Science, University of Saskatchewan to O. S. Finnie, October 3, 1927, LAC RG 85-c-1-a Vol. 779 File 5761.
- O. S. Finnie to Mr. Richards, October 21, 1927, LAC RG 85-c-1-a Vol. 779 File 5761.
- O. S. Finnie to J. A McDougal, District Agent, Department of the Interior, October 26, 1927, LAC RG 85-c-1-a Vol. 779 File 5761.
- G. D. Murphy, District Agent to O. S. Finnie, October 15th, 1927, LAC RG 85-c-1-a Vol. 779 File 5761.
- O. S. Finnie to J. A. McDougal, November 9, 1927, LAC RG 85-c-1-a Vol. 779 File 5761.
- Gary Wobeser, “Bovine tubercolosis in Canadian wildlife: An updated history,” CVJ 50 (2009): 1170.
- Ibid., 1170-1171.
- W. H. Collins, A/Director, National Museum of Canada to O. S. Finnie, November 26, 1927, LAC RG 85-c-1-a Vol. 779 File 5761.
- W. H. Collins to O. S. Finnie, July 27, 1928, LAC RG 85-c-1-a Vol. 779 File 5761.
- “A Window on the World: Photographic News From Far and Near,” The Illustrated London News, January 23, 1937, 123. LAC R3251 Vol. 13 File 11.