The animals have been lonely. Just as people are more aware of the wildlife around them, keepers at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo say animals have definitely taken note of the unusual quiet since the facility shut down to visitors in March to contain the spread of COVID-19. But today, the Smithsonian Institution announced that the Zoo, along with the National Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia, will reopen on July 24.
“As a public entity, we thrive on serving our visitors and making our collections readily available to them, virtually and in person,” said the Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie G. Bunch III in a release. “However, the safety and well-being of our staff, visitors and volunteers come first and are paramount, so we are taking a deliberate, phased and cautious approach to reopening. Our goal is to be safe and measured in order to adjust and pivot as necessary.”
Among the welcoming committee at the Zoo, will be a few new furry faces. Two female bison, named Lucy and Gally, have arrived from Zoo’s Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal, Virginia, and two babies—a wallaby born to mama Victoria, who keepers have not yet been able to determine the sex of, as well as a nine-month-old kudu, which is an antelope that ranges across eastern and southern Africa.
In addition to animals born on the grounds, the Zoo also typically receives animal intakes from other zoos and conservation centers around the country. Throughout the Zoo’s shutdown, transfers of animals had come to a complete stop. But, with some of those movement restrictions recently lifted, the National Zoo will soon be home to several new residents, including an Andean bear, a male sea lion, sting rays, goats at the Kids’ Farm (which will be open) and geckos. The Asia Trail habitat will be sending Jackie the male red panda to another zoo, and will bring in a female companion for the five-year-old female resident red panda Asa, so that they can be together year-round.
“We’re just happy and excited to reopen, plain and simple. It’s going to be great to welcome back our visitors. There’s real raw, genuine enthusiasm for the prospect of having guests again,” says Pamela Baker-Masson, the Zoo’s associate director of communications.
In planning to re-open, Zoo staff have spent several weeks consulting scientific experts and preparing rigorous healthcare guidelines to determine what necessary changes would take place within the Zoo grounds to ensure the safety and welfare of both human visitors and the animals in their care.
While animal houses, indoor exhibitions and brick-and-mortar shops will remain closed for the time being, outdoor souvenir sales kiosks and food and beverage vendors will open, including the new addition of an Elevation Burger, offering items from a menu of organic, grass fed beef and cage-free chicken. “It’s a great company and they’re very sustainability-oriented, so we’re thrilled,” says Baker-Masson. The playground and the carousel will also be closed to visitors.
COVID-19 is a zoonotic disease, meaning that it can be transferred between different animal species via the SARS-CoV-2 virus. While evidence does not suggest that animals, including cats and dogs, play a role in transmission of the virus to humans, some animals can be susceptible to infection from humans. In April, the Bronx Zoo reported that four tigers and three lions had shown symptoms and tested positive for the disease—these animals have since recovered.
Given these concerns, and the known risk of community spread when large groups of people amass, the Zoo will be implementing several precautionary measures. Facial coverings are required for all visitors, and most pathways throughout the Zoo will be one-way. New sanitizer stations are available and every other sink in the public bathrooms will be turned off to maximize distance between people who are washing their hands.
Admission to the Zoo is free, but visitors will need to reserve timed-entry passes online prior to their trip. For those planning to drive, Zoo parking costs $30 and must be purchased online in advance. Parking passes provide entry to all passengers in the vehicle. The Zoo will allow no more than 5,000 people per day, roughly a third of normal capacity. Vehicles will enter only through the Connecticut Avenue entrance. Pedestrians can enter at Connecticut Avenue and lower Harvard Street.
The Cinncinati Zoo & Botantical Garden, the San Diego Zoo and St. Louis Zoo are among others that have re-opened with similar protocols in place.
“The bottom line is we want people to move through the Zoo safely and have a good time,” says Baker-Masson. “Nature is restorative. Animals are restorative. In the heart of our city we’ve got this amazing zoo and hopefully our visitors will be able to come and respect everyone’s safety and have a good experience again and be inspired.”
Free, timed-entry passes to the Smithsonian's National Zoo (open 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily) and the Udvar-Hazy Center (10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m) are available online or by phone at 1-800-514-3849, ext. 1. One individual can reserve up to six passes and each visitor must have a pass regardless of age. All other Smithsonian museums remain closed.