Asian elephants

external linkZoos: A Historical Perspective
from Smithsonian Institution Libraries

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The National Zoological Park is an accredited member of the Association of Zoos & Aquariums.



The Smithsonian’s National Zoo was founded in 1889. Its mission is to provide leadership in animal care, science, education, and sustainability. About 2,000 individuals of 400 different species are in the animal collection.

The National Zoo has two installations. The first is a beautiful 163-acre urban park located in Northwest Washington, D.C., 20 minutes from the National Mall by subway. It offers family fun, excitement, and stimulating education programs, as well as a peaceful setting to enjoy nature. The other is the non-public, 3,200-acre Conservation and Research Center in Front Royal, Virginia, which is devoted to training wildlife professionals in conservation biology and to propagating rare species through natural means and assisted reproduction.

The Zoo was created by an Act of Congress in 1889 for “the advancement of science and the instruction and recreation of the people.” In 1890 it became a part of the Smithsonian Institution. Plans for the Zoo were drawn up by three extraordinary people: Samuel Langley, third Secretary of the Smithsonian; William Temple Hornaday, noted conservationist and head of the Smithsonian’s vertebrate division; and Frederick Law Olmsted, the premier landscape architect of his day. Together they designed a new zoo to exhibit animals for the public and to serve as a refuge for wildlife, such as bison and beaver, that were rapidly vanishing from North America.

In its first half century the National Zoo, like most zoos around the world, focused principally on exhibiting one or two representatives of as many exotic species as possible. Animals were relatively easy to obtain from the wild, and just as easy to replace when they died. The number of many species in the wild began to decline drastically, however, largely due to human activities. The fate of the Earth’s animals and plants became a pressing concern. Many of these species were favorite zoo animals, such as elephants and tigers; so Zoo staff began to concentrate on the long-term management and conservation of entire species.

The middle and late 1950s were a turning point for the Zoo. The first full-time, permanent veterinarian was hired, reflecting a priority placed on professional health care for the animals. In 1958, Friends of the National Zoo (FONZ) was founded. This citizen group’s first accomplishment was to persuade Congress to fund the Zoo’s budget entirely through the Smithsonian; previously, the Zoo’s budget was divided between the Smithsonian’s and the District of Columbia’s appropriations. This placed the Zoo on a firmer financial base, allowing for a period of growth and improvement. FONZ incorporated as a not-for-profit organization and turned its attention to developing education and volunteer programs, supporting these efforts from its operations of concessions at the Zoo, and to expanding community support for the Zoo through a growing membership.

In the early 1960s, the Zoo turned its attention to breeding and studying threatened and endangered species. Although some zoo animals had been breeding and raising young, no one knew why some species did so successfully and others didn’t. In 1965 the zoological research division was created to study the reproduction, behavior, and ecology of zoo species, and learn how best to meet the needs of the animals.

Later, in 1975, the Zoo established the Conservation and Research Center (CRC), thus renewing its original commitment to serve as a “refuge for vanishing wildlife.” On 3,200 acres of Virginia countryside, rare species, such as Mongolian wild horses, scimitar-horned oryx, maned wolves, cranes, and other species live and breed in peaceful, spacious surroundings. Today, CRC’s efforts emphasize reproductive physiology, analysis of habitat and species relationships, and the training of conservation scientists. During this period, FONZ offered increasing financial support for the Zoo’s conservation and research initiatives.

Expanding knowledge about the needs of zoo animals and commitment to their well-being has changed the look of the National Zoo. Today, the animals live in natural groupings rather than as individuals. Rare and endangered species, such as golden lion tamarins, Sumatran tigers, and sarus cranes, breed and raise their young—a testament to the success of the Zoo’s conservation and research programs.

Along with the increased efforts in research and conservation came the need to expand public understanding of wildlife and the environment. Public education programs were developed to help students, teachers, and families explore the intricacies of the animal world. Specialized programs were designed to train wildlife professionals from around the world and to form a network to provide crucial support for international conservation. The National Zoo is at the forefront of the use of web technology and programming to expand its programs to an international virtual audience.

FONZ is an integral partner in the Zoo’s efforts. Its 40,000 members include about 20,000 families, largely in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area, and volunteers number more than 1,000 individuals. FONZ provides guest services, development support, education and outreach programs, concessions management, and financial support for research and conservation.

The National Zoo has been the home to giant pandas for more than 30 years. First Hsing Hsing and Ling Ling in 1972, and, since 2000, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, have symbolized the Zoo’s efforts to celebrate, study, and protect endangered species and their habitats. The July 9, 2005, birth of giant panda Tai Shan underscores these efforts.

Plans for the future include modernizing the Zoo’s aging facilities and expanding its education, research, and conservation efforts both in Washington and in the wild. A Kids’ Farm exhibit opened in 2004, and a ten-year renewal program has already seen the creation of Asia Trail, a series of wonderful habitats for seven Asian species, including sloth bears, red pandas, and clouded leopards. Elephant Trails will provide a new home for the Zoo's Asian elephants.

As the National Zoo celebrates the 119th anniversary of its establishment in 1889, its mission to provide leadership in animal care, science, education, and sustainability is as vital as ever if humankind is to save what remains of the Earth’s biological diversity.

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