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Thursday, November 14, 2013

Zoo Review: Smithsonian National Zoological Park (Part II)

Part II: The Review
So, having spent a lot of time around the place, what do I think of the National Zoo?  A mixed bag, but largely positive.  First off, let me state that there are few institutions that do as much for conservation as the Smithsonian National Zoological Park.  It was probably the first zoo in the world founded specifically with conservation as a goal – the American bison, specifically (absent from the zoo for several years, but scheduled to return for the zoo's 125th anniversary).   The zoo has had great breeding success with many species, including some that traditionally have proven extremely difficult to propagate, such as the kori bustard.  The zoo’s Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal, VA had proven essential to breeding many delicate endangered species, such as maned wolves, black-footed ferrets, and clouded leopards.  Furthermore, this zoo was almost single-handedly responsible for saving the golden lion tamarin from extinction. 

Unlike many zoos, which don’t communicate enough with the public about the work that they do, SNZP is very vocal in describing how it makes a difference to wildlife around the world.  The Smithsonian participates and leads research projects around the world.  A partnership with George Mason University is helping to train the next generation of conservation biologists. 

At the same time, knowing what I do about the zoo, I sometimes feel frustrated that it doesn’t do better.  Most of these thoughts have to do with the zoo itself – its campus, its collection.  As the nation’s zoo, I feel that the zoo should be a leader and innovator.  It used to – a while back SNZP produced many revolutionary, exciting new displays.  Amazonia, for instance, was one of the best rainforest immersion exhibits I’d ever seen (probably because, unlike many other ones, it didn’t try to cram an ark-load of large mammals in its rainforest).  The Invertebrate House was (and still is) innovative and unique.  Most surprising of all is the O-Line, which allows the zoo’s orangutans to travel between their two exhibits with a series of cables and towers directly over the heads of visitors.  When the zoo proposed its plan for this exhibit, other zoos said they were nuts.  It turned out to be brilliant.
I’m not sure where all the innovation has gone – the most recent few exhibits – Asia Trail, American Trail – have lacked imagination.  I’m not saying that there was anything wrong with them, the individual animal enclosures all seemed well-suited to the animals.  It just didn’t feel like there was an underlying message, a grand idea holding it all together.  (This, to be fair, is a problem I have with the Smithsonian museums as a whole – they’re collections of stuff.  Really cool stuff, to be sure, but still, just a bunch of stuff grouped together).  The Reptile, Bird, and Small Mammal Houses had the same effect on me – a bunch of boxes with animals.  Some of the boxes were cooler than others, some were… boxes with a branch or two.

There were a few concerns I did have about the animal collection, as well.  Take the wolves, for instance: the new American Trail features generic gray wolves.  AZA recommends that, for purposes of sustainability, zoos should maintain either red wolves or Mexican gray wolves.  That was the case that irked me the most (mostly because, within my recent memory, first red and then Mexican wolves were displayed at the zoo, in that same enclosure), but there were other examples of animals being displayed that I felt could or should have been replaced with managed species.  Again, as the nation's zoo, I feel that the National Zoo should set an example to other zoos in all aspects of what it does, including collection planning.

It also wouldn't hurt if the staff at the zoo was a little more communicative.  I saw a lot of clusters of keepers hanging around and just talking, ignoring the public.  In all the years that I've gone, I've rarely seen a keeper interact with a visitor outside of a scheduled talk or demonstration.

Cleanliness could also be improved a bit, especially regarding pest control.  I saw more mice than zoo animals in some of the older animal houses; lots of the guests I saw in Small Mammal House thought that the mice were the exhibit animals!

This are all nitpicky, mind you.  The Smithsonian National Zoo is a great institution with a storied history and a bright future making contributions to conservation.  It rates among the best zoos in America.  The best, however, can always get better...

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