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National Zoological Park (United States)

Tiger Cubs at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo

Watch Sumatran tiger cubs Bandar and Sukacita romp and play at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo’s Great Cats Exhibit. 10 a.m. everyday, weather permitting. 

300px-Washington_Zoo_entranceThe National Zoological Park, commonly known as the National Zoo, is one of the oldest zoos in the United States, and as part of the Smithsonian Institution, does not charge admission. Founded in 1889, its mission is to provide leadership in animal care, science, education, sustainability, and visitor experience.  The National Zoo has two campuses. The first is a 163-acre (66 ha) urban park located in northwest Washington, D.C. that is 20 minutes from the National Mall by Metro to the Woodley Park station, or downhill walk from the Cleveland Park station.  The other campus is the 3,200-acre (1,300 ha) Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI; formerly known as the Conservation and Research Center) in Front Royal, Virginia. SCBI is a non-public facility devoted to training wildlife professionals in conservation biology and to propagating rare species through natural means and assisted reproduction. The National Zoo is accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA).

Altogether, the two facilities contain 2,000 animals of 400 different species. About one-fifth of them are endangered or threatened. Most species are on exhibit at the Zoo’s Rock Creek Park campus. The best known residents are the giant pandas, but the Zoo is also home to birdsgreat apesbig cats,Asian elephantsinsectsamphibiansreptilesaquatic animals, small mammals and many more. The SCBI facility houses between 30 and 40 endangered species at any given time depending on research needs and recommendations from the Zoo and the conservation community. The National Zoo, as part of the Smithsonian Institution, receives federal appropriations for operating expenses. A new master plan for the park was introduced in 2008 to upgrade the park’s exhibits and layout.

The National Zoo is open every day of the year except December 25 (Christmas Day).


The National Zoo was created by an Act of Congress in 1889 for “the advancement of science and the instruction and recreation of the people.” In 1890 it became a part of the Smithsonian Institution. Three well-known individuals drew up plans for the Zoo: Samuel Langley, third Secretary of the Smithsonian; William T. Hornaday, noted conservationist and head of the Smithsonian’s vertebrate division; and Frederick Law Olmsted, the premier landscape architect of his day. Together they designed a new zoo to exhibit animals for the public and to serve as a refuge for wildlife, such as bison and beaver, which were rapidly vanishing from North America.

800px-Zoo_washington_dc_20041011_120025_1.1504x1000Olmsted Walk, near the zoo’s Elephant House

In its first half century, the National Zoo, like most zoos around the world, focused principally on exhibiting one or two representatives of as many exotic species as possible. The number of many species in the wild began to decline drastically, principally because of human activities. Sometimes animals became unexpectedly available. In 1899, the Kansas frontiersman Charles “Buffalo” Jones captured a bighorn sheep for the zoo. The fate of animals and plants became a pressing concern. Many of these species were favorite zoo animals, such as elephants and tigers; hence the staff began to concentrate on the long-term management and conservation of entire species.

The middle and late 1950s were a turning point for the Zoo. The Zoo hired its first full-time, permanent veterinarian, reflecting a priority placed on professional health care for the animals. In 1958, Friends of the National Zoo (FONZ) was founded. The citizen group’s first accomplishment was to persuade Congress to fund the Zoo’s budget entirely through the Smithsonian; previously, the Zoo’s budget was divided between appropriations for the Smithsonian and the District of Columbia. This placed the Zoo on a firmer financial base, allowing for a period of growth and improvement. FONZ incorporated, as a nonprofit organization, turned its attention to developing education and volunteer programs, supporting these efforts from its operations of concessions at the Zoo, and expanding community support for the Zoo through a growing membership.

In the early 1960s, the Zoo turned its attention to breeding and studying threatened and endangered species. Although some zoo animals had been breeding and raising young, no one knew why some species did so successfully and others didn’t. In 1965 the Zoo created the zoological research division to study the reproduction, behavior, and ecology of zoo species, and to learn how best to meet the needs of the animals.

400px-Gorilla_StacktimeA gorilla at the National Zoo enjoys a snack.

Later, in 1975, the Zoo established the Conservation and Research Center (CRC). In 2010, the complex was renamed the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI); this title is also used as an umbrella term for the scientific endeavors taking place on both campuses. On 3,200 acres (13 km2) of Virginia countryside, rare species, such as Mongolian wild horses, scimitar-horned oryx,maned wolves, cranes, and others live and breed in spacious surroundings. Today, SCBI’s efforts emphasize reproductive physiology, analysis of habitat and species relationships, genetics, husbandry and the training of conservation scientists.

400px-DCNationalZooLionMale lion at the National Zoo

Expanding knowledge about the needs of zoo animals and commitment to their well being has changed the look of the National Zoo. Today, the animals live in natural groupings rather than as individuals. Rare and endangered species, such as golden lion tamarinsSumatran tigers, and sarus cranes, breed and raise their young – a testament to the success of the Zoo’s conservation and research programs.

The National Zoo has developed public education programs to help students, teachers and families explore the intricacies of the animal world. The Zoo also designed specialized programs to train wildlife professionals from around the world and to form a network to provide crucial support for international conservation. The National Zoo is at the forefront of the use of web technology and programming to expand its programs to an international virtual audience.

The National Zoo has been the home to giant pandas for more than 30 years. First Hsing Hsing and Ling Ling in 1972, and, since 2000, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian. On July 9, 2005, Mei Xiang gave birth to Tai Shan, who went to China in February 2010. Plans for the future include modernizing the Zoo’s aging facilities and expanding its education, research and conservation efforts in Washington, Virginia and in the wild. A 10-year renewal program has already seen the creation of Asia Trail, a series of habitats for seven Asian species, including sloth bearsred pandas, and clouded leopards. Elephant Trails, scheduled to open in 2012, will provide a new home for the Zoo’s Asian elephants. Kids’ Farm exhibit opened in 2004.

The zoo, which is supported by tax revenues and open to everyone, attracts 2 million visitors per year, according to the Washington Post in 2005.

The National Zoo has a Federal Law Enforcement Agency deployed on its grounds; the National Zoological Park Police, which consists of full-time Law Enforcement Officers. The National Zoological Park Police is an agency that has been recognized by the United States Congress. The NZPP is one of five original police agencies within the District of Columbia with full police powers. The NZPP works very closely with the Metropolitan Police Department, the United States Park Police, Department of State, Capital Police, Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the Department of Defense. The agency is considered the first line of defense in the event of any crisis.

Dennis W. Kelly was named director of the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington, D.C., effective February 15, 2010. As director, Kelly oversees the 163-acre (66 ha) facility in Rock Creek Park and the 3,200-acre (1,300 ha) Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI) in Front Royal, Virginia. Kelly, 56, was the president and CEO of Zoo Atlanta in Georgia from June 2003 until February 2010.

Kelly succeeded John Berry, who was the National Zoo director for three years until February 2009 when he resigned to become the director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, under the Obama Administration. Steven Monfort, the Zoo’s associate director for conservation and science, served as the acting director between February 2009 and February 2010. As acting director, Monfort helped create The Global Tiger Initiative, a program between the Smithsonian and the World Bank Group to stabilize and restore wild tiger populations. He also strengthened the Zoo’s role in conservation education through a partnership with George Mason University. Monfort will continue as the associate director for conservation and science, as well as the director of the SCBI, the Smithsonian’s home for global studies of endangered species.


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