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The National Zoo welcomes a pair of bison

Wednesday - 8/27/2014, 3:59pm  ET

bison.jpg
One of two new bison at the Smithsonian National Zoo. Their habitat will open to the public on Aug. 30. (Courtesy Smithsonian National Zoo Flickr)

WASHINGTON -- Marking its 125th anniversary, the National Zoo is getting back to its roots. It's putting on exhibit, for the first time in a decade, a pair of animals responsible for the zoo's founding -- bison.

"This is really the first species at the National Zoo. It was a request to create the zoo to save bison and other species that Congress created our zoo," says Brandi Smith, senior curator of mammals at the zoo.

On Wednesday morning, the gate from the bison barn was thrown open and two young females galloped into their yard for their first public photo opportunity. With a warm sun beating down, the young pair trotted, sniffed, then munched on grass before reclining in the shade.

Representatives of Howard and Gallaudet Universities, where both school's sports teams are called the bison, were on hand to witness the moment and name the zoo's newest residents.

"The Howard University community voted on the name Zora," declared Leighton Watson, president of the Howard University Student Association.

"The student leaders of Gallaudet University have chosen the name of Wilma," said Andrew Morrill, president of Gallaudet University Student Body Government, through an interpreter.

The students explained that they named the bison after prominent alumni. Zora Neal Hurston is an author, poet and civil rights activist. Wilma Newhoudt- Druchen is the first deaf woman to serve in the South African parliament. She is currently vice president of the World Federation of the Deaf.

The zoo has not had any bison in a decade and they're expected to be a crowd pleaser.

"It's such an iconic species for the National Zoo, for the nation as a whole, I think bringing them back to the nation's capital is awesome," says the person the bison are likely to see the most of, bison curator Steve Sarro.

The two 1-year-old female bison are from the American Prairie Reserve in Montana.

"They're a little bit over half-size. They're running about 500 pounds right now ... and they could put on another 300 or 400, maybe even 500 pounds," Sarro says.

Once, millions of bison roamed the American prairie, but they were driven to near-extinction. The good news is that the bison species has been saved.

"This is truly a conservation success story. There are about half-million out there, in the wild, so we have definitely taken the species which was headed for extinction and brought it back," Smith says.

The National Zoo's bison habitat is located near Olmstead Walk, not far from Panda Plaza. The bison will go on public display Sat. August 30.

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