Creature Keepers

Conservation and research remain key elements in the National Zoo’s ever-expanding programs

Dwarf mongoose at the National Zoo
Dwarf mongoose at the National Zoo Wikimedia Commons

When I first became Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, I was somewhat puzzled at the presence of the National Zoological Park in our family of museums, galleries and research centers.

The Zoo, in fact, dates back more than 100 years. A major impetus for its creation came from William Temple Hornaday, a taxidermist at the National Museum, as the Institution's gallery and collections were then known. He wanted to display natural-looking specimens of American animals and thought that this could best be achieved by first studying living animals. He persuaded Secretary Samuel P. Langley to allow him to "go West," collect live bison, and bring them and other animals back to Washington. His experience on the prairies convinced him that there were American species in danger of disappearing forever. Hornaday housed bison behind the Smithsonian Castle, and they became a popular attraction. Partly as a result of this attention to living animals, he was able to advocate the establishment of a zoological park as part of the Smithsonian. (He left before it opened, and later became the director of the New York Zoological Park.)

The Zoo's mission as stated in the 1889 legislation establishing it was "the advancement of science and the instruction and recreation of the people." On April 30, 1891, two elephants, donated by a circus, and a crowd of schoolchildren paraded from downtown Washington to the new park for the official opening. From the start, the Zoo's funding was somewhat anomalous, with half provided by the District of Columbia and half by the federal government. In 1966, the entire operating budget was turned over to the Smithsonian. Another measure that greatly assisted the development of the Zoo was the establishment in 1958 of the Friends of the National Zoo (FONZ), a group of concerned citizens devoted to expanding the Zoo's programs and facilities.

In 1972 world attention focused on the Zoo when China donated a pair of giant pandas to the people of the United States. These animals became the subject of national and international interest and stimulated Zoo research in the field of panda biology. The female, Ling-Ling, died of a heart attack in 1992. The 29-year-old male, Hsing-Hsing, is still alive though ailing. Plans are under way to obtain a pair of young pandas to continue the Zoo's efforts to further research, emphasize conservation and delight the public.

Today, when more species are at risk worldwide than ever before in the history of humankind, the National Zoo is justly proud of its emphasis on conservation that continues in the tradition of Hornaday. It is also proud of its extensive research programs conducted in the field and laboratory. The Zoo's core programs were enhanced in 1975 by the creation of the 3,000-acre Conservation and Research Center at Front Royal, Virginia, which is a world-class facility for research, animal breeding and conservation training.

In recent years the Zoo has placed increased emphasis on becoming a "biopark," a facility that accentuates the interrelationships among all forms of life. New or reconstructed exhibits remind visitors of this interconnectedness of nature. Amazonia, a re-creation of a rain forest, includes an interactive area where visitors can learn about the biology of Amazonian animals and plants. The Think Tank, which explores the complex behavior of orangutans — how they think, use tools and acquire language — is a major visitor attraction. The upgraded Reptile House now features interactive displays about the creatures' habits.

The Zoo plans a number of new additions for the coming years. These include an exhibition on water, emphasizing its crucial role in all biological systems and current conservation problems. Projects to remodel the Elephant House and Beaver Valley are also in the works, and the Zoo expects to build a new education and conference center in cooperation with FONZ.

A major fundraising initiative by FONZ and the Zoo will seek to raise $2.5 million to support research into the biology and conservation of giant pandas, here and in China, and upwards of $10 million for the construction of the education center and the upgrading of exhibits. The Zoo has come full circle, reemphasizing its early messages of conservation and bioliteracy at a crucial time in the history of life on earth.

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