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The History of the National Zoo: A Century in the Making

Explore the enchanting story of The National Zoo in Washington DC—a vibrant landmark that has lit up cities with its annual Zoo Lights!

3100 Connecticut Ave, NW/ Parking Available

If you’re visiting for the holidays with kids don’t miss an evening drive through the National Zoo’s Zoo Lights (vehicle pass required). During daylight hours the National Zoo is open winter hours 8AM- 3PM; Summer 8AM to 5PM. Zoo entry is free but visitor passes are still required.

You might be wondering how a zoo got mixed up with the famous Smithsonian museums? Back in 1886 a Smithsonian scientist, William Hornaday, took a trip to the American West. His day job at the museum was to showcase unusual animals in display cases – often animal skeletons but sometimes entire animals whose bodies were preserved for museum visitors to study.

Mr. Hornaday was horrified to discover on his trip that the wild bison - which everyone thought of as our national animal (remember the buffalo head nickel??) - was rapidly going EXTINCT! By late 1886 there were only a few hundred bison left. Hornaday - now considered the founder of the National Zoo - managed to purchase some bison and they were the beginning of the Smithsonian Institution’s live animal exhibits located on the National Mall. In 1889 Congress created and funded the Washington, DC, campus of the National Zoo on land in Northwest, DC.

The National Zoo has continued its animal preservation efforts both at the zoo itself and at a second, very large campus outside of Washington, DC, the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, in Front Royal, VA, not open to the public. However, for those who want to see it all, there are webcams livestreaming 24/7 elephants, lions, giant pandas and naked mole rats.

In the 1970’s the National Zoo even got involved in diplomacy! After President Richard Nixon’s visit to the Peoples Republic China in 1972 China become a member of the World Trade Organization. One of the most unusual agreements coming out of this early detente with China was the establishment of open dialogues between Chinese scientist and National Zoo scientists about how to successfully breed endangered giant pandas which are native to China.

In 1972 the first pair of giant pandas arrived at the National Zoo. Since then, Smithsonian’s Zoo scientists and veterinarians have been leaders in the field of giant panda biology and conservation. Giant pandas in the wild have started to rebound and now they were no longer considered endangered – but they are still considered a fragile species. By agreement, all panda cubs born at the National Zoo must go back to China when they are 4 year’s old.

At the entrance to the National Zoo two large lion statues welcoming you. You will be walking along lovely trails created by Frederick Law Olmstead who also landscaped the US Capitol. The trails wind through 163 acres of the zoo - along Rock Creek Park. Inside the zoo there are 2500+ animals. It’s best to decide in advance which of these areas are most important for you to visit:

Giant Panda Habitat, Asia Trail, Elephant Trails, Lemur Island, Small Mammal House, the American Trail, The Great Ape House, Gibbon Ridge, Great Cats on Lion and Tiger Hill, the Cheetah Conservation Station, Amazonia, Reptile Discovery Center, The Bird House (undergoing reconstruction - reopening 2021) and, where it all began, the American Bison Exhibit.


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