A Walk through the Smithsonian’s National Zoo

From the lecture series: The Great Tours — Washington, D.C.

By Richard Kurin, Ph.D., The Smithsonian

Today, the National Zoological Park’s two facilities—the National Zoo itself sits on 163 acres in Rock Creek Park in Washington, D.C. and the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute is in nearby Front Royal, Virginia—are home to an astounding 1,800 animals representing 300 species. Here’s what makes the zoo not only a fun place to visit but an important part of research and conservation work in the United States and around the world.

entrance sign for the national zoo in washington, DC

It’s a good idea to start your tour of the National Zoo at the Visitors Center, near the Connecticut Avenue pedestrian entrance. Here, you can pick up a zoo map, find out about that day’s special events, and get the schedule for daily guided tours. But you certainly don’t need a tour to enjoy the zoo. As you can see on the zoo map, the animals are grouped both by type and geographic category. For example, just past the Visitors Center, you’ll find one of the most innovative exhibits in the zoo: the Cheetah Conservation Station.

The Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute is deeply involved in cheetah conservation efforts worldwide, studying behavior, breeding, and the health of these critically endangered big cats. At the Conservation Institute, researchers study behavior and hormonal and genetic data to create breeding plans and optimize the health of cubs. The three male cheetahs you’ll see here in the National Zoo are part of that research.

This exhibit is also innovative because it is a mixed-species exhibit, one of several found around the zoo. The cheetahs are housed with animals found in their native African habitat. You’ll find zebras, maned wolves, oryxes, hornbills, vultures, and a number of other species within this exhibit, which helps researchers and visitors observe how these animals interact in the wild. Recreating natural conditions for animals in human care as much as possible is an important part of keeping them healthy.

This is a transcript from the video series The Great Tours: Washington, D.C. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Another conservation success story found near the park entrance is the clouded leopard. The clouded leopard is not a type of leopard at all—it’s a big cat, a unique species. And they are native to Nepal, Bangladesh, eastern India, Sumatra, and Borneo. They live in tropical rain forests, and they eat primates, deer, boar, along with birds and rodents. There’s maybe 10,000 clouded leopards left in the wild.

Elephant Trails—Not Just an Exhibit

Elephant at the National Zoo in Washington D.C.

Now, a short walk down the path from these two big cat exhibits, past our friend the bison, you’ll find one of the newest, largest, and most complex exhibits at the zoo: Elephant Trails. It’s a complete Asian elephant conservation facility. It was designed to be as close to a natural habitat as possible, while still allowing zookeepers access for medical and dental care, assisted breeding, and behavior research.

The facility is big enough for up to 10 adult animals plus their offspring, with plenty of room for them to move and explore. They have a quarter-mile walking path plus pools for bathing, swimming, and playing. Being intelligent animals, they need mental exercise, too; so their keepers provide them with lots of enrichment activities, such as puzzle feeders, which the elephants can explore and interact with to receive a tasty treat. They get other toys like balls and tires and even musical instruments to play. Some of this is part of ongoing behavioral research, but most of it is simply to keep the elephants happy and satisfied.

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In addition to behavioral research, Smithsonian scientists are studying elephants’ reproductive biology and immunology. This information helps them participate in elephant conservation research in Southeast Asia, including tracking of herds and reducing human/elephant conflict. The more we learn about these extraordinary animals, the more we can help save them.

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The elephants can be viewed by visitors from a number of vantage points throughout the zoo, but I especially recommend a stop at the Homer and Martha Gudelski Elephant Outpost in good weather when the elephants are walking the track.

Adventures in the Amazonia Exhibit

Bird national zoo dc

Amazonia, toward the south end of the zoo, is home to a number of fascinating exhibits. For example, in the Electric Fishes Demonstration Lab, electric eels actually power part of the exhibit. When the animals emit a charge, it activates lights, screens, and speakers in the lab. You can also touch a model electric eel and feel the currents.

Another aquatic resident of Amazonia is the arapaima, possibly the world’s largest freshwater fish. This massive creature can grow up to 10 feet long and weigh more than 400 pounds; but most fascinating of all, it can breathe air, and it can survive 24 hours out of water. This helps the arapaima survive when the Amazon basin floods and carries the fish into isolated pools that are low in oxygen. They’ve been known not only to eat other fish and insects but even birds and small mammals.

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Amazonia may have the widest variety of animals of any of the zoo’s exhibits. Along with those fish, you’ll find striking birds like the roseate spoonbill and the green aracari; surprising invertebrates like the Goliath bird-eating tarantula, which can reach almost a foot in leg span; popular mammals and primates like the Andean bear and the two-toed sloth; and endangered amphibians like the poisonous Panamanian golden frog.

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The Panamanian golden frogs you’ll see today at the National Zoo are part of a multi-national conservation project called PARC, which stands for Panamanian Amphibian Rescue and Conservation. PARC conducts captive breeding programs and research on how to treat amphibians infected with chytrid so that their populations can be reestablished in the wild. In the meantime, the frogs here at Amazonia serve to educate the public about the importance of this project and the importance of amphibians to the natural environment.

The Zoo’s Great Cats—Dangerous and Endangered

Tiger at the National Zoo in Washington D.C.

The extremely popular Great Cats exhibit features some of the world’s most dangerous, and also the most endangered, animals. The tiger is critically endangered throughout all of its native habitats, which include most of the continent of Asia. Six subspecies are still believed to be in existence: the Malayan, Sumatran, South China, Indochinese, Bengal, and Amur (or Siberian) Tiger. The National Zoo works very closely with Sumatran and Amur tigers.

These beautiful, iconic cats are solitary creatures and territorial in the wild, which contributes to the decline of the species. Competition for resources and mates is fierce among adult tigers in the wild, which, combined with human poaching and encroachment, has caused the wild population to dwindle to a little under 4,000 individual animals, and that includes all subspecies of tiger.

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The National Zoo is part of the species survival plan, or SSP, for the Sumatran and Amur tigers. SSPs are inter-zoo agreements that help sustain good genetic diversity within an endangered species through genetic analysis of individual animals, which helps zookeepers choose the best breeding pairs from across North American zoos, and sometimes from elsewhere in the world. Smithsonian is also involved in the Global Tiger Recovery Program, which helps nations prioritize and implement tiger conservation projects.

The National Zoo’s O-Line and Think Thank

Orangutan at the National Zoo in Washington D.C.

When you leave the Great Cats areas, look up. The cables you see overhead are called O-Line. “O” stands for orangutan, and if your timing and the weather are just right, you may see some of these fantastic apes swinging right over your head!

The O-Line, which the orangutans can use in the late morning or early afternoon, is the route from the apes’ habitat to the Think Tank. The Think Tank is an interactive exhibit where visitors can watch and even participate in primate research. Here, the orangutans, along with Allen’s swamp monkeys, Schmidt’s red-tailed monkeys, Norway rats, and hermit crabs, are offered games, mazes, and other tests of their thinking and learning abilities. Visitors, like you, can test their strength of mind and body against the orangutans by competing with the apes in memory games and even a tug of war.

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Zookeepers use information from these activities in their ongoing research projects, but they also serve as sources of enrichment for the animals. What does enrichment really mean? Simply put, it means creating an environment in the zoo that allows animals to perform the same behaviors they would in the wild. Good enrichment practices keep animals healthy and happy, preventing boredom and reducing stress.

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This means paying attention to the objects in the animals’ enclosures, the way their food is prepared and delivered, the things they can smell and hear, the other animals they can interact with, and even the way they interact with their zookeepers. Enrichment tools can be as simple as a tree branch or a ball or as complicated as a multi-part puzzle. The orangutans here at the National Zoo even interact with computers. Zookeepers also monitor animal reactions to these enrichment tools to see if they’re helping the animal, or whether they’re neutral, or whether they might cause distress. It’s a constant learning process for us all.

The Pandas of Washington, D.C.

Panda bear eating bamboo at the National Zoo in Washington D.C.

The giant pandas are found along the Asia Trail at the David M. Rubenstein Family Giant Panda Habitat. There are both indoor and outdoor viewing areas where you can watch these treasured animals eating, sleeping, climbing, playing, and interacting with one another. The National Zoo’s giant pandas are among about 300 living in zoos and breeding centers worldwide and another 1,800 or so living in their natural habitat among the bamboo forests of China.

The zoo’s first giant pandas, “Ling-Ling” and “Hsing-Hsing,” arrived in Washington in 1972, not as part of a research or conservation project, per se, but as a diplomatic gift. In February 1972, after 22 years of diplomatic separation between the United States government and the People’s Republic of China, President Richard Nixon and Mrs. Nixon traveled to mainland China as a symbol of thawing Cold War relations between the two nations.

Gift exchange is a common part of all diplomatic relations, but Chinese tradition gives more weight to gifts between hosts and guests than our own culture does. Choosing the right gifts was extremely important to ensuring that the talks went well. But there were scientific considerations as well. The Smithsonian’s scientists were very eager to get their hands on a breeding pair of pandas. At that point, no American zoo had hosted a panda for some two decades; their increasingly endangered status and the difficulty of breeding pandas in captivity was well known, and our scientists at the National Zoo wanted a chance to work on saving the species.

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But as I said earlier, giant pandas are iconic, unique to China, and seen as a symbol of that nation. What could America offer in exchange? The U.S. State Department and the National Zoo finally settled on the musk ox, native to Alaska, which the Smithsonian first had to purchase from the San Francisco Zoo before it could be offered to the State Department, and then to the White House, and be gifted to China.

And the rest is now Washington, D.C. history. The giant pandas have become as much a part of Washington, D.C. life as the Washington Monument. It’s hard to imagine Washington, D.C. without the giant pandas.

Common Questions About the Smithsonian’s National Zoo

Q: How much is admission to the Smithsonian’s National Zoo?

As for all Smithsonian museums, admission is free for the zoo.

Q: Are there still polar bears at the Smithsonian National Zoo?

No. There are no longer polar bears at the Smithsonian National Zoo because their lodgings were too hot in the summertime, and thus they were moved to cooler lodgings in the Midwest.

Q: Can two-toed sloths be viewed at the Smithsonian National Zoo?

The Smithsonian National Zoo currently has one two-toed sloth named Vlad who is 30 as well as a 9-year-old sloth named Howie for viewing.

Q: Does a government shutdown affect the Smithsonian National Zoo?

Yes. If a government shutdown lasts for longer than a year, the funds will no longer be available to keep the zoo open, and it will close until the government reopens.

This article was updated on 9/13/2019

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