There are a lot of incredible zoos in the United States, large and small, but there is only on National. Located in northwest Washington DC’s Rock Creek Park, the Smithsonian National Zoological Park is one of the largest and most famous zoos in the country. Like all other parts of the Smithsonian, it is open to the public free of charge and is considered a must-see by tourists visiting the nation’s capital. The animals that most visitors are most keen to see, of course, are its most famous residents: giant pandas, including a newly born cub. For a long time, it was the only US zoo to display pandas, the original pair being a “good-will” gift to President Nixon from the People’s Republic of China.
Part I: The DescriptionMost of the zoo’s exhibits branch off of a long, meandering road that runs straight through the park. Unlike many zoos, National Zoo’s collection is still largely organized taxonomically, instead of geographically. The great apes – gorillas and orangutans – are found in one building, the great cats – lions and tigers - are grouped together in side by side yards (accompanied by smaller cats), and separate buildings contain the reptile, bird, small mammal, and invertebrate collections. There are some deviations from this theme – there is an Asian Trail, an African Trail (which, to be honest, also contains maned wolves from South America), and, newest of all, an American Trail. Amazonia, a South American rainforest building, is tucked away at the bottom of the zoo.
Asia Trail is home to the zoo’s famous giant pandas, along with red pandas, clouded leopards, sloth bears, fishing cats, and small-clawed otters (which pretty much makes it an Asian Carnivore Trail). The zoo wouldn’t want anyone to risk missing the pandas, so they can be observed both in their outdoor yards and indoors. Apart from the perpetually sleeping pandas, many of the animals on Asia Trail are somewhat reclusive; I’d say only once or twice have I ever walked the trail and seen every species, and only the red pandas and otters are likely to be out every time. The trail also features an overlook of the zoo’s newly expanded elephant habitat. The Asian elephant herd can be seen from several viewing points outside (including from a suspension bridge and a special educational outpost), as well as from the recently renovated Elephant House.
Africa Trail, across from Asia Trail, features zebras and antelopes, but it is the cheetahs that are the stars here. The newly opened American Trail displays otters (with underwater viewing) and beavers, along with wolves, ravens, and bald eagles. Gray seals and California sea lions inhabit side-by-side pools, with underwater viewing and stadium-seating to facilitate views for the sea lion training demonstrations. Amazonia, the South American rainforest building, is down the trail. It features a gallery of giant river fish and a brief walk-through forest, populated by birds and small monkeys. Andean bears are found outside.
Birds, reptiles, amphibians, invertebrates, and small mammals are found in a series of animal houses, most of which are lined alongside the zoo’s main road. The collection in each is impressive. The Reptile Discovery Center (RDC) would have to be my favorite; when I was a kid, I remember it having bearded dragons, leopard geckos, and other pet store species, along with a few exotics. Now, it features reptile and amphibian rarities from around the world – Philippine and Cuban crocodiles, radiated tortoises, fly river turtles, Fiji iguanas, and Japanese giant salamanders, to name a few. One of the newer displays offers guests a peak into an Appalachian salamander research lab, where zoo scientists study local amphibian declines (I’m told that this exhibit was controversial in its conception – some folks in Congress didn’t like the idea of federal monies going to an exhibit that criticized mining and implicated climate change in species decline). Komodo dragons, Chinese alligators, and Aldabra tortoises are outside.
Go around the back of the RDC and you’ll find yourself in the Invertebrate House. When it opened, it was one of the first major invertebrate displays in the country, and it is still one of the best. Exhibits range from corals and anemones to an open-fronted display of orb weaver spiders. Guests get a behind-the-scenes peek at the workings of the building - they can talk to invert keepers from across a counter, watching them prepare diets or tend quarantine tanks. The giant octopus is the most popular display, especially during feeding demonstrations.
As to the other two animal houses – Bird and Small Mammal – eh. They both boast of cool collections. Small Mammals have the zoo’s famous golden lion tamarins, as well as meerkats, hyraxes, and naked mole rats. The Bird House has one of the only kiwi exhibits in the country (which isn't to say you'll see them... you won't), as well as hornbills, macaws, and indoor and outdoor free flight aviaries. A series of outdoor pens house an enormous flock of American flamingos, cranes (including rare whooping cranes), cassowaries, and rheas. Still, the indoor exhibits in both buildings are somewhat bland, and both could probably use a major overhaul (which, to be fair, I believe is in fact being planned).
Review to be continued...
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