Earlier this fall, two daughters and I visited the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute, commonly known as the National Zoo.
One of my daughters lives in the Washington, DC, area. Another daughter and I visited her for a weekend in September. We decided to spend part of one day at the zoo. This was my first time visiting the National Zoo, and I thought it was great.
A Different Kind of Zoo
The National Zoo is different than most zoos in that has primarily focused on research and conservation from its beginning. When William Temple Hornaday, a taxidermist for the Smithsonian, visited the western United States in the late 1880s, he was surprised that there were so few bison roaming the land. His efforts caused President Grover Cleveland to sign a law creating the National Zoological Park in 1989. The National Zoo was established in northwest Washington, DC, at the edge of Rock Creek Park.
In 1975, the Conservation Biology Institute opened in Front Royal, Virginia, with 3200 acres dedicated to studying endangered species. The Institute and Zoo work together to do research, provide habitat for the animals, and educate the public.
Throughout the years, the Smithsonian scientists have been successful in facilitating births of endangered species, caring for them in a protected environment, and eventually introducing them back into the wild.
All the Animals
Although the pandas are the highlight of the zoo, there are a lot of other animals. When we first arrived, we stopped at the visitors center to pick up the free map, so we could decide which direction to walk.
There was a demonstration starting soon at the sea lion pool, so we headed there. Although we just caught the tail end of the presentation, we were able to see the sea lions swimming up to the trainers for food. We walked through a tunnel where we could view the sea lions and other creatures underwater through large glass panels. The were so graceful.
We visited the Great Cats Circle. Each area had just one cat in it when we were there. One held a tiger and two held lions. The tiger was the most entertaining as it paced along in front of the crowd, occasionally climbing up to the higher areas in its environment.
We moved on to the home of the Great Apes. Although not in use when we were there, a large artificial vine connects one building to another. Orangutans are arboreal, meaning they like climbing from tree to tree. The vines allow them to do this. Gorillas, on the other hand are terrestrial – they stay on the ground most of the time.
Several other animals entertained us as we walked along. There were elephants, zebras, cheetahs, and bison. There are homes for birds and fish. The zoo also has a children’s discovery area that families would enjoy.
The Giant Pandas
When we arrived, we had seen a notice that the pandas would be fed at 2 pm. This was the only time they would be outside, and visitors were not allowed inside at the time. It was suspected that Mei Xiang, the adult female panda, was pregnant, so visitors were being limited. (It turned out to be a pseudo-pregnancy – no cub this time).
We got to the panda area about ten minutes before feeding time – it was packed! There were people everywhere trying to get a good viewing spot near the fence. My daughters and I stood in the second or third row, although we were eventually able to move up to the front.
After waiting several minutes, someone came out. No, it wasn’t a panda. The feeding crew brought bundles of bamboo, a five gallon water bottle, and some burlap sacks. They spread them around the area before leaving. After a wait of several more minutes, a panda came out. This was Bei Bei, born in 2015, and now just four years old. He was so cute, I don’t know how the handlers can resist giving him a hug (probably not a good idea).
Bei Bei wandered around for a few minutes before finding his meal. Lunch with Bei Bei (short video download). Inside the large water bottle were pieces of bamboo stems. They were about the size of a small ear of corn. Bei Bei had to shake the bottle and turn it upside down in order to get the pieces out. It was fun watching him solve the puzzle.
Just last week, Bei Bei flew to China. Per an agreement with the Chinese government, he will live at the Giant Panda Conservation and Research Center in southwest Sichuan province. When he is old enough, he will enter their breeding program. He will be missed, but according to authorities, he is doing well in his new home.
Visiting the Zoo
Although there is no fee or admission charge to visit the zoo, there is a $25 charge for parking. Parking spaces are extremely limited. Street parking nearby is difficult to find – we parked several blocks away and walked in. Public transportation is recommended. Check the zoo’s website for details.
The zoo is open from 8 am to 5 pm with extended hours in the summer. The exhibit buildings, the Visitor’s Center, and dining and shopping areas have varied hours.
There are daily programs throughout the zoo. Check at the Visitor’s Center or the website for details. There are also special events held at different times of the year. Zoolights, a popular seasonal light display will be open from November 29, 2019, through January 1, 2020 from 5 to 9 pm (Not available December 24, 25 & 31).
I highly recommend a trip to the National Zoo. The giant pandas are fascinating. The other animals were also very interesting and fun to watch. We spent three or four hours at the zoo, but could have easily spent more time. I imagine families with children could stay the whole day.
Have you ever been to the National Zoo? Share your experiences below.