Orangutans nonchalantly drape themselves across cables 45 feet above the heads of passersby, taking a break as they traverse the O-Line – an orangutan transit system that connects the Great Ape House to the Think Tank at the Smithsonian National Zoological Park. On mornings when these great apes ascend the towers skyward, the trail below erupts in startled gasps of amazement, punctuated by the occasional shriek as visitors realize the apes are traveling four stories above with no safety net.
Created in 1889 by an Act of Congress, and then adopted into the Smithsonian Institute in 1890, the National Zoo has welcomed the public to wander its shaded paths for over 120 years, with no admission fee. Though the park's front gates open onto the rumbling traffic and dense construction of Connecticut Avenue, one of Washington's busiest thruways, traces of the city quickly evaporate into the sounds of rustling leaves, chattering tourists, and periodic roars from the Big Cat exhibit farther down the path.
This 163-acre park is a research center for the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, launched in January 2010 and based in Front Royal, Virginia. The Institute is the fulcrum of the Smithsonian's efforts to preserve global biodiversity, with some of its greatest developments in animal care, cognition, and enrichment taking place at the National Zoo, where they are shared directly with the public. The Think Tank, for instance, provides a venue for scientists to study the communication and social behavior of apes, or for visitors to enter into a tug of war contest with a willing orangutan and experience the research firsthand.
Although research is a priority, the sensory details of a visit to the zoo are not neglected. Families can visit the Kids' Farm to groom a donkey, or venture into steamy Amazonia, where birds and monkeys dart freely among the surrounding trees. The recently opened Elephant Trails employs several interactive exhibits to offer a dynamic insight into the plight of wild Asian elephants, while also granting visitors an intimate view of the zoo's resident pachyderms grazing peacefully in their grassland habitat.
Of the more than 400 species at the zoo, perhaps the most popular are the giant pandas, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, whose success at parenthood has made headlines around the world. Although their cub, Tai Shan, has moved to China, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian still attract hoards of visitors each day. Children clamor to the glass and cameras flash as each panda slowly eats its way through a mountain of bamboo. The National Zoo's giant panda program began as a result of a diplomatic gift exchange between the United States and China in 1972 after 20 years of frosty relations. In return for two pandas, the United States presented China with two musk oxen as a token of renewed friendship. Since 1987, the zoo has worked with China to monitor the wild panda population and habitat, improve conservation education, and continue its reproductive research.
The National Zoo, tucked into Washington, D.C.'s Northwest corner, opens its exhibits to the public year round. Keep in mind that the animals, like people, prefer certain temperatures, and will likely be most active on the cooler days of spring and fall. It is best to visit on a warm morning, however, if you hope to spy an orangutan swinging overhead.
- April – October: Gates open from 6am to 8pm and exhibits open 10am to 6pm daily.
- November – March: Gates open from 6am to 6pm and exhibits open from 10am to 4:30pm daily.
- Closed Christmas Day.
- Metro Stop:
- Redline to the Woodley Park – Zoo/Adams Morgan Station
- Location: 3001 Connecticut Avenue NorthWest, Washington DC
- Phone: 202-633-4800
- Website: www.nationalzoo.com