The National Zoo in Washington, D.C.
Visitors to the Smithsonian National Zoological Park (founded in 1889) should wear comfortable shoes in order to explore the zoo’s 163-acre preserve in Rock Creek Park. A world leader in animal care (the zoo also maintains a 3,200-acre, non-public Conservation and Research Center in Virginia), the zoo has a population of approximately 2,000 animals representing more than 400 different species.
National Zoo scientists, biologists, and veterinarians are among the world’s experts in the captive breeding of threatened and endangered species. Olmsted Walk is the main pedestrian route through the center of the Zoo. Frederick Law Olmsted; landscape architect best known for his work in NYC’s Central Park, along with Samuel Langley; 3rd Secretary of the Smithsonian and William Temple Hornaday; head of the Smithsonian’s vertebrate division and noted conservation, designed the National Zoo.
Over time the focus changed from simple exhibition of representative exotic animals to conservation of entire species. Zoo staff members have created different habitats to improve the living conditions of animals and the viewing enjoyment of visitors. Asia Trails, which begins at the zoo’s entrance on Connecticut Avenue, hosts interesting animals from Asia: sloth bears, fishing cats, red pandas, clouded leopards, Asian small-clawed otters, and giant pandas.
As a gesture of friendship and openness that followed Richard Nixon’s historic visit, China “loaned” the National Zoo two giant pandas, now mother Mei Xiang and father Tian Tian, in 1972. Female giant panda cub Bao Bao was born on Aug. 23, 2013 and expected to stay until 2017. An earlier male cub Tai Shan, born in 2005, was sent back to China in 2010 to breed. Today’s panda guests enjoy air-conditioned grottos with misting sprays that mimic their natural environment and protect them from Washington’s notoriously hot summers.
Curators at the National Zoo who were developing the unique Think Tank exhibit solved the problem of limited space in a historic landmark building by allowing the orangutans they wanted to include the ability to travel between the Think Tank and the Great Ape House.
The worlds first Orangutan Transport System—the O Line—incorporates eight 50-foot tall towers connected by plastic coated cables and crosses Olmsted Walk twice. Orangutans traverse the O Line by swinging hand over hand or by walking along the cables. Towers other than the first and last, which are outside the two enclosures, have skirts to keep the animals from climbing down (or people from climbing up!).
Zoo visitors enjoy watching orangutans traveling on the O Line while the animals benefit from freedom of movement, choice of location and an expanded living area. Amazonia re-creates a tropical rainforest for its inhabitants. This 15,000-square-foot area features more than 350 species of plants in its enclosure. Visitors can spot scarlet macaws, blue and gold macaws, cane toads, two-toed sloths, scarlet ibises, maned wolves, primordial-looking arapaima fish, and poison dart frogs as they walk through this exhibit.
A map, information about other exhibits and animals at the National Zoo, the science and conservation biology practiced there and visitor information is available on their website.
by Katie Calvert & Lee Nelson