National Zoo: Entertainment and Education

The National Zoo, located at 3001 Connecticut Avenue, N.W., in Washington, DC encompasses over 160 acres in Rock Creek National Park. The National Zoo was designated a Department of Living Animals on the National Mall until 1889 when an Act of Congress appropriated funds to purchase the land that is its present location. The Zoo became a part of the Smithsonian Institute in 1890, and consists of two separate facilities, one in DC and a research center in Front Royal, Virginia. Samuel Langley and William Hornaday, both of the Smithsonian, along with architect Frederick Olmsted planned the Zoo as a wildlife refuge, specifically at the time to protect the endangered bison and beaver. As wildlife slowly vanished and became more difficult to obtain, research and conservation were of growing concern. In the mid-1950’s, a full-time veterinarian was employed, and Friends of the National Zoo (FONZ), organized in 1958, were able to ensure future funding would be provided entirely by the Smithsonian. This new source of funding allowed the creation of the Zoological Research Department in 1965 for further study of breeding, behavior, and natural habitats.

Today, the National Zoo is considered one of the largest and best in the world, where hundreds of animals and bird life provide hours of entertainment, fun, and education for the thousands of people who visit each year. Wildlife, native to North America, roam freely through the grounds, while wild birds gather to make the Zoo their home. Indoor and outdoor exhibits include the big cats such as lions, cheetahs, and the rare Sumatran tigers in an African habitat, elephants on the Asian trail, giraffes, sea lions, reptiles, and amphibians. Gorillas and orangutans live in the Great Ape House, while other primates such as the rare golden lion tamarins, howler monkeys, lemurs, and gibbons are kept in a smaller habitat. The Bird House is filled with birds of every type, from flamingoes, herons, and sarus cranes to ducks, pigeons, vultures, and hawks. In addition, education is offered through the Think Tank, where visitors can observe scientists work, train, and interact with the many different animals.

Highlighting the many attractions at the Zoo are the giant pandas, a rare and endangered species. Approximately 1600 of these remain, living in the bamboo forests of central China, while some 160 are kept in zoos where research is ongoing to protect these unusual animals. Mei Xiang and Tian Tian were brought to the zoo in 2000 on a 10-year loan from China for extensive study and breeding purposes. Tai Shan made the headlines in 2005 as the first giant panda bred in captivity, a major achievement by the National Zoo. Their efforts have been so successful and attracted so much of the public’s attention that April was designated Panda Month at the Zoo by the mayor of DC. Other animals bred in captivity at the Zoo include the nine cheetah cubs born in 2004 and 2005 (three males are named Draco, Granger, and Zabini from the Harry Potter books). Further along the Asian Trail, new additions in October 2006 include sloth bears, otters, clouded leopards, small fishing cats, Japanese giant salamanders, and the smaller red pandas.

The Amazon River exhibit features the spectacled bear, native only to South America, tropical birds from the rain forests, and giant anteaters in a natural habitat of avocado and cocoa trees, as well as a 27,000 gallon aquarium featuring piranha and other marine life. The Reptile Discovery Center houses turtles, tilapia, and the gharial, the largest of the crocodile species that lives primarily in India and Nepal. This creature is extremely rare, reportedly less than 1,000 remain. The Kids Farm in 2004, is an educational site where kids can interact with the animals, learn to care for them, and for those from the cities, discover that many of our food products come from the farm.

The National Zoo has grown with dedicated community and private support, allowing numerous acquisitions for the exhibits, as well as extensive refurbishment and improvement of the grounds and facilities. In addition to enjoying the natural beauty of the surroundings, visitors can enjoy the variety of free programs sponsored by FONZ that are held throughout the year. These include training and feeding demonstrations, wildlife and migratory bird celebrations, Earth day, African American family day, free summer evening concerts, a Latin American fiesta, and beer tasting, as well as special holiday festivities. ZooFari is an annual fundraising event, featuring music, food, and entertainment, which brings in thousands of dollars for the continued operation and maintenance of the Zoo.

Hours: Open daily, except December 25. October 30 — April 1, grounds from 6:00 a.m., to 6:00 p.m., buildings from 10:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. April 2 — October 29, grounds from 6:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m., buildings from 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. Admission: Free. Parking: $4.00 — 1 hour; $12.00 — 2 to 3 hours; $16.00 — over 3 hours +. Free for FONZ members. Street parking nearby is free.
Food concessions, snack stands, and gift shop on premises.

(Note: The official website. provides online webcams for exploration of each of the exhibits at the Zoo.)

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