What’s New at the Zoo
by Mark Rothman
My first memory of loving wildlife comes from sitting in front of a black-and-white TV watching “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom.” The show was on for many years, and I probably started watching it when I was about six years old. Even now, I can clearly picture Marlin Perkins riding in a jeep alongside a charging rhinoceros. I would like to say that I appreciated the beauty of it all but, as a young boy, but I think I was mostly interested in the power of that animal and the dangers of the wild. Regardless of what got me hooked, wild animals and their protection has become one of my lifelong passions.
As an adult living in suburban Maryland, that passion is not easily satisfied. But, it turns out that there is a fantastic outlet for these energies right down the street –one that is both free and multi-faceted. Our National Zoo, and its partner organization, Friends of the National Zoo (FONZ), provide a myriad of experiences for people of all ages and interests. For children, there are camps and birthday parties. For young adults interested in mingling, there’s Grapes with Apes. For teachers and students, there are field trips and lesson plans. For those interested in learning, there are lectures and presentations. And to top it all off there is Zoofari – the best, most fun, and most delicious, fundraiser in the city.
And, of course, there are the animals. What better way to get people interested in conservation than to fall in love with an orangutan? Or an elephant? Or even an elephant shrew? Over the years, the National Zoo has transformed itself into a place where animals are housed in enclosures that closely mimic their natural habitats. Its new elephant house is the latest example of an enclosure designed and built with the primary focus on the health and stimulation of the animals. Time and time again, it has been shown that seeing a healthy and happy living elephant (or tiger or gorilla) is the best advertisement for helping to save elephants (or tigers or gorillas) in the wild.
However, what I believe to be the most important aspect of the zoo is something visitors rarely see: the research being done at the zoo, and at other zoos across the country, is quite literally saving species from extinction. At the National Zoo alone, huge breakthroughs have been made in breeding several species, including Thailand’s very rare clouded leopard. At the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI), the 3,200 acre annex to the zoo in Front Royal, Virginia, the zoo maintains a collection of these cats that are genetically valuable, and amazingly beautiful. SCBI is also home to the largest herd of Przewalski’s horses anywhere on earth – a species that is extinct in the wild. And, this doesn’t even include the success of the black footed ferret – reintroduced into the American West by our zoo after their wild population went extinct. I personally encountered elephants in Africa, leopards in Asia, kangaroos in Australia and grizzly bears in Alaska – and it feels great to know that our zoo is helping to maintain these animals in the habitats where they belong.
I started interacting with the zoo as a visitor, then I volunteered with the cheetahs, and now I am on the board of FONZ. And, as I have become more and more familiar with the inner workings of this institution, I am constantly amazed and touched by the dedication of all involved. From the keepers, to the vets, to the parking attendants, to the volunteers at FONZ, countless people work tirelessly to make our zoo a fantastic place for both people and animals. If you haven’t had a chance to visit lately, take a stroll past the orangutans (look UP to see the O-Line), check out the komodo dragon (the closest thing there is to a living dinosaur), visit the giant salamander (the only animal that can survive fire!), then make your way to see the unbearably cute new lion cubs. And, if these sites move you the way they move me, become a member of FONZ. It is inexpensive and you get free parking! But, more importantly, you can join me in making a difference to these beautiful, and often endangered, creatures.