This is not a blog [post] about whether zoos should exist. This is a blog [post] that questions whether our National Zoo should continue to exist.
Last weekend I flew up to Washington, DC to see my sister and brother-in-law, who were in DC for a professional conference. On Saturday we decided to go to the National Zoo for the afternoon. It was a cool but pleasant day and we were, like many provincial visitors, looking forward to a nice time. What we had instead was a somewhat disturbing and dispiriting experience.
The National Zoo actually is part of the Smithsonian Institution. It was established in the late 19th century and occupies about 160 acres near Rock Creek Park. Entrance to the Zoo is free, and you can get there easily using public transportation (take the Metro Red Line to either Woodley Park-Zoo/Adams Morgan or Cleveland Park). Both the public areas and the animal areas were quite clean, and although obvious rat-and mouse-infestations have been reported in the past, we didn’t see any signs of such in the public areas.
The premier attraction at the Zoo of course is the giant panda family: Mei Xiang, Tian Tian and their cub Tai Shan. Their “habitat” is the only one at the Zoo with a named corporate sponsor (Fujifilm). Although it is the nicest animal area at the Zoo, to me it still seemed small, shabby and sterile. Since it was a cool day, Tai Shan and his dad were outside. Tai Shan was eating bamboo in his yard, and seemed calm and totally absorbed by the task. We were told by a volunteer that the Zoo veterinarians had separated Tian Tian and Mei Xiang earlier in the week because Mei Xiang is ready to be bred again, and the Zoo will attempt this using sperm from a panda other than Tian Tian. Needless to say, Tian Tian seemed VERY agitated by this turn of events. He paced continuously around his small outdoor area as we watched, pausing briefly to aggressively strip some bamboo. We saw Mei Xiang inside, reclining on some fake rocks in a room much like a concrete cell. Call me naïve, but I thought the pandas would be rolling around happily outside, something like one imagines the stuffed “panda bears” sold in the Zoo gift shops would do. Perhaps we just caught them on a bad day. Or maybe every day is a bad day.
From the Giant Panda exhibit we moved on to the Great Ape House, home of the Zoo’s group of lowland gorillas and other primates. We saw only one gorilla, a female sitting outside on a big concrete pipe (like you would see on an interstate highway construction project). She posed for this photo, and stared at us with an inscrutable look on her face.
Last on our agenda was the Elephant House, a large masonry building surrounded by what looks like a deserted elementary school playground. Washington’s climate prevents the elephants from being kept outside except in the summer months. Inside the Elephant House we saw the Zoo’s three remaining Asian elephants, which were standing and eating together in a cramped, cell-like concrete room. The space was so small the elephants, one of which is a juvenile, could hardly turn around. It hurt me to see them.
When I was in Sri Lanka I was fortunate to visit the Pennawela Elephant Orphanage, a conservation area in the hill country where a limited attempt is being made to simulate conditions in the wild for elephants orphaned due to habitat reduction, big game hunting, or the civil war. (Here is a photo of a Pennawela baby elephant taking its daily bath in the Maha Oya River. The comparison of an elephant’s life at Pennawela vs. the National Zoo is graphic and sad.)
Since my Zoo visit, I’ve done a little research and found that the Zoo’s last decade has been a troubled one. In fact, as the NY Times reported yesterday the entire Smithsonian organization is suffering. Since 2002, an alarming number of Zoo animals have died or been euthanized: elephants, zebras, giraffes, an orangutan, a pygmy hippo, a lion, a cheetah, a bald eagle and two red pandas. The red pandas, which unlike their more famous cousins resemble large raccoons with bear-like faces, died after ingesting rat poison buried in their habitat. In 2003, the Zoo almost lost its accreditation by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. At the end of 2004, the Zoo’s director resigned after the release of a Congressional review highly critical of Zoo management. The current director, who assumed the post in mid-2005, announced an ambitious 10-year program to upgrade the Zoo when he arrived, but I saw little if any evidence of its implementation during my visit.
The Zoo undoubtedly shares the Smithsonian’s overall problems of Congressional underfunding and apparent gross mismanagement. These are problems that can be solved, given time and attention. But I think the basic issue with the Zoo as it exists now on Connecticut Avenue is that its time has passed. When it opened more than 100 years ago, the idea of taking exotic animals out of cages and providing them with “habitats” was considered a novel and enlightened concept. No one who visits the Zoo’s Elephant House on a cool day in 2007 should think that crowding animals native to a tropical climate into a 1930’s stone barn is enlightened. More likely, they’ll think it’s cruel.