Marvel at giant pandas, clouded leopards, and Asian elephants while supporting conservation efforts at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo on Connecticut Avenue in Northwest D.C. Today, the zoo’s two facilities—the National Zoo itself in D.C. and the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in nearby Front Royal, Virginia—are home to 1,800 animals representing 300 species. The zoo is free to the public and open 364 days a year, only closing on Christmas Day.
To help you plan your visit, we’ll look at:
• Cheetahs and clouded leopards at the zoo
• The Elephant Trails exhibit
• The Amazonia area
• The Kids’ Farm and the Great Cats Exhibit
• The Think Tank
Entering the Zoo
It is a good idea to start your tour of the National Zoo at the visitors’ center, near the Connecticut Avenue pedestrian entrance. Here you can pick up a zoo map, find out about that day’s special events, and get the schedule for daily guided tours. However, you do not need a tour to enjoy the zoo.
Cheetahs and Clouded Leopards at the Zoo
Some of the animals are grouped by type, but others are grouped by geography. For example, just past the visitors’ center, you will find one of the most innovative exhibits in the zoo: the Cheetah Conservation Station. The cheetahs are housed with animals found in their native African habitat.
You will find zebras, maned wolves, oryxes, hornbills, vultures, and a number of other species within this exhibit, which helps researchers observe how these animals interact in the wild. The zookeepers feed the carnivores by planting meat around the enclosure for them to forage, so they do not hunt and eat their companions.
Another conservation success story found near the park entrance is the clouded leopard . Despite their name, they are not technically leopards, but are a unique species of big cat native to Nepal, Bangladesh, eastern India, Sumatra, and Borneo.
There are maybe 10,000 clouded leopards left in the wild, and breeding them in zoos has proved challenging. In 2017, Smithsonian scientists, collaborating with colleagues at the Nashville Zoo, made a great technical breakthrough in clouded leopard conservation, producing the first ever cub from cryopreserved semen. Hopefully, this is the first step to a new, successful breeding program for these beautiful animals.
The Elephant Trails Exhibit
A short walk down the path from these two big cat exhibits, past the bison, you will find one of the newest, largest, and most complex exhibits at the zoo: Elephant Trails. This is a complete Asian elephant conservation facility. It was designed to be as close to their natural habitat as possible, while still allowing zookeepers access for medical and dental care, assisted breeding, and behavior research.
The facility is big enough for up to 10 adult animals, plus their offspring, with plenty of room for them to move and explore. The elephants can be viewed by visitors from a number of vantage points throughout the zoo, but this course recommends a stop at the Homer and Martha Gudelski Elephant Outpost in good weather when the elephants are walking the track. You can also check them out on the zoo’s elephant cam, which gives you views both inside and outside their enclosure.
The Amazonia Area
Toward the end of the zoo is the Amazonia area, which is home to a number of fascinating exhibits. For example, in the Electric Fishes Demonstration Lab, electric eels actually power part of the exhibit. When the animals emit a charge, it activates lights, screens, and speakers in the lab. You can also touch a model electric eel and feel the currents. Another aquatic resident of Amazonia is the arapaima, possibly the world’s largest freshwater fish.
Amazonia may have the widest variety of animals of any of the zoo’s exhibits. Along with those fish, you will find striking birds like the roseate spoonbill and the green aracari, surprising invertebrates like the Goliath bird-eating tarantula, popular mammals and primates like the Andean bear and two-toed sloth, and endangered amphibians like the poisonous Panamanian golden frog.
The Kids’ Farm and the Great Cats Exhibit
If you want to get really close with the animals, nothing beats the Kids’ Farm at the south end of the complex. This is a petting zoo where you can visit farm animals from all over the world. There, you will find not only find not only cows, goats, chickens, and hogs, but more unusual animals like alpaca and miniature donkeys. This is the only exhibit at the zoo where visitors are encouraged to touch the animals.
Near the farm, you will find the extremely popular Great Cats exhibit, featuring some of the world’s most dangerous, and yet most endangered, animals. The tiger is critically endangered throughout all of its native habitats.
In particular, the National Zoo works with Sumatran and Amur tigers. These iconic cats are solitary creatures and territorial in the wild, which contributes to the decline of the species. Competition for resources and mates is fierce among adult tigers in the wild, which, combined with human poaching and encroachment, has caused the wild population to dwindle to a little under 4,000 individual animals.
Smithsonian is part of the species survival plan, or SSP, for the Sumatran and Amur tigers. SSPs are inter-zoo agreements that help sustain good genetic diversity within an endangered species through genetic analysis of individual animals, which helps zookeepers choose the best breeding pairs from across North America’s zoos, and sometimes from elsewhere in the world. Smithsonian is also involved in the Global Tiger Recovery Program, which helps nations prioritize and implement tiger conservation projects.
When you leave the Great Cats area, look up. The cables you see overhead are called the O-line. The O stands for orangutan, and if your timing and the weather are right, you may see some of these fantastic apes swinging right over your head.
The Think Tank
The O-Line, which the orangutans can use in the late morning or early afternoon, is the route from the apes’ habitat to the Think Tank. The Think Tank is an interactive exhibit where visitors can watch and even participate in primate research.
Here, the orangutans, along with Allen’s swamp monkeys, Schmidt’s red-tailed monkeys, Norway rats, and hermit crabs, are offered games, mazes, and other tests of their thinking and learning abilities. Visitors can test their strength of mind and body against orangutans by competing with the apes in memory games and even a tug of war.
Since the giant pandas’ arrival, they have been one of the zoo’s most popular attractions. The giant pandas are found along the Asia Trail at the David M. Rubenstein Family Giant Panda Habitat. There are both indoor and outdoor viewing areas where you can watch these treasured animals eating, sleeping, climbing, playing, and interacting with one another.
The zoo’s first giant pandas, Ling‑Ling and Hsing‑Hsing, arrived in 1972 as a diplomatic gift from the People’s Republic of China. In return, the State Department sent musk ox. (The American bison was also considered, but the Beijing Zoo already had some.)
When Ling‑Ling and Hsing‑Hsing passed away in the 1990s, Smithsonian negotiated a lease on a new breeding pair of pandas, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian. This was not only because of their popularity, but because important research in breeding was still going on at the zoo—and is still going on today.
Giant pandas are one of the great conservation success stories of our time. They were declared endangered in 1990 due to the ravages of poaching and deforestation, but in 2016, their status was upgraded to vulnerable. That is thanks in large part to the work done by the Smithsonian and in other research centers around the world.
Giant Pandas across the World
The National Zoo’s giant pandas are among about 300 living in zoos and breeding centers worldwide. Another 1,800 or so live in their natural habitat, among the bamboo forests of China.
The giant pandas are not the only type of panda at the National Zoo. Right next to those famous bears, you will find a smaller exhibit featuring the red panda. Despite their name, red pandas are not very closely related to giant pandas.
Red pandas are in a family by themselves—the Ailuridae family—and their closest relatives are skunks and weasels. Like the giant panda, the red panda is endangered, with an estimated 50 percent decline in the wild population over the past two decades. That is why the Conservation Biology Institute is part of red panda conservation efforts. More than 100 cubs have been born at the institute since 1962.
Planning Your Trip to the Zoo
When planning your trip, visit the zoo’s website and check out the events page. Special events take place throughout the year at the zoo, from seminars on special topics to fun events for families and for adults.
Among the most popular events for families is Boo at the Zoo, a Halloween event where kids are invited to trick-or-treat at the zoo and learn about the animals along the way. Another popular attraction is ZooLights during the winter holiday season, when beautiful light displays, live music, and holiday treats are the order of the day.
For the grown‑up crowd, there are beer- and wine-tasting events like Brew at the Zoo and Zoo Uncorked, as well as the hugely popular annual culinary festival called ZooFari. The money raised at these events goes directly back into animal care and research at the zoo.
If you want to be a regular contributor to the zoo’s mission, check out FONZ: the Friends of the National Zoo. Members can get special discounts and VIP status at events, as well as a subscription to Smithsonian Zoogoer magazine.
Use these online resources to help plan your trip.
Smithsonian’s National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute
FONZ: The Friends of the National Zoo