The View from the Zoo

Lately, I’ve been occupied with an internship at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington, D.C. With the current federal shutdown, I can’t go in to work, so it seems like an ideal time to share some of what I’ve learned recently about the National Zoo. If you live in the D.C. area, you’ve probably heard about the giant panda cub born in late August. Maybe you’ve dropped in to watch Mei Xiang and the cub on the Panda Cam. Aside from providing our daily dose of cuteness, however, what happens at the National Zoo? What makes zoos valuable?

1. Zoos are public education institutions. People visit zoos to see unusual animals, and seeing the diversity of life up close is a powerful way to inspire interest in the natural world. Zoos encourage kids to explore biology, ecology, conservation, and science in general. Who wouldn’t want to learn more about apes after watching the orangutans travel across the cable “O-line” thirty feet above the ground? With the help of the animals, keepers, and volunteers, zoos are excellent teaching tools. The interpretive signs at the National Zoo are very creative (I’m particularly fond of the giant, moveable, elephant-shaped signs in the Elephant Community Center, complete with pull-tabs and visual aids), and I like seeing exhibition signs that are engaging and kid-friendly. If visitors have any other questions about the animals, they can just ask a volunteer interpreter! Many enthusiastic, knowledgeable people donate their time to help visitors understand more about the animals, so if you’re curious about how the herons get along with the sea lions, or why a tire is hanging in the elephant enclosure, don’t hesitate to ask.

Every day, animal keepers present over a dozen demonstrations with animals throughout the zoo. If you want to learn more about sea lions, sloth bears, elephants, or any other zoo critter – or if you just want to get a glimpse into zoo operations – I cannot recommend these demos enough! I’ve seen a few of them in my short time at the National Zoo, and I always learn something new about the individual animals, their species, or the Zoo as a whole. Did you know that training is a very important part of maintaining the health and well-being of zoo animals? Whether it’s training a sloth bear to open his mouth for a dental checkup or teaching the sea lions to retrieve foreign objects that fall into their aquarium, training is essential to health care. Training and demonstrations also tie into animal enrichment by providing challenging activities that keep animals engaged and mentally active within their environment.

Zoos are wonderful places for learning about animals and inspiring interest in biology. But what happens behind the scenes at a zoo?

2. Zoos are research institutions. Just as the Smithsonian museums have behind-the-scenes research programs, the National Zoo has an associated institution called the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI) headquartered in Front Royal, Virginia. Scientists at both the SCBI and the Zoo itself research topics ranging from animal physiology and medicine to behavior and conservation.

Research breeds knowledge, and knowledge can be used to solve problems. The National Zoo focuses on reproduction and veterinary medicine, two issues that are very important to the conservation mission of the Zoo. Reproduction research is essential for endangered species breeding programs, and good veterinary medicine keeps Zoo animals healthy. Other research topics such as behavior and physiology are important for broader conservation issues. For example, take a look at this recent study on whooping crane learning and migration. Knowing more about these endangered birds helps researchers promote successful migration, and ultimately provides a better chance at this species’ survival in the wild.

Speaking of conservation…

3. Zoos are conservation institutions. “Charismatic macrofauna” such as cheetahs and pandas are the most recognizable faces of the Zoo, but the Zoo doesn’t forget less celebrated clades such as frogs and salamanders. Endangered species depend considerably on research, breeding, and conservation programs at zoos. As a high-profile institution, the National Zoo draws eyes to environmental issues and threats, and to the endangered species hurt by such problems.

The Zoo also contributes to educating young conservationists. The Zoo and its associated institutions offer undergraduate and graduate courses, internships, and fellowships for students interested in conservation issues. The Zoo’s capacity as a research institution also lends itself to its role as a conservation institution. For example, researchers connected with SCBI published findings on how habitat corridors help maintain genetic diversity in wildcat populations in India. Conservation research is essential for developing informed decisions on environmental policy.

I highly recommend visiting the National Zoo once it reopens. Pleasant temperatures and smaller crowds make autumn the perfect time of year to visit, and many animals are more active in cooler weather. Plus, whatever your age or area of expertise, you’re bound to learn something new at the Zoo.