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The Smithsonian’s National Zoo

The Smithsonian’s National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute

The Smithsonian’s Zoo in Washington, DC has 1,800 animals representing 300 species in 13 exhibits. The zoo spans 163 acres (66 hectares). The zoo opened in 1891. The zoo has grown from housing 15 North American species to animals from all around the world.[i] It has large open areas for most of its large animals. This makes it good for the animals and good for viewing. The zoo is within walking distance of the Woodley Park and Cleveland Park Metro Rail stops. The walk from the Woodley Park/Adams Morgan stop is uphill and flat from the Cleveland Park stop. These stops are on the Red Line.[ii] The zoo is free. There are parking lots within the zoo. The lots charge a flat rate of $25.[iii] My first visit to the Smithsonian’s Zoo was in September 1982. This article is largely based on my personal experience.

[i] National Zoo History,, last accessed 3/24/19.

[ii] The Washington DC Metro Rail system uses lines referred to by color.

[iii] This means the rate is the same regardless of how long the car is parked in the lot. The cars must leave the lot when the zo closes for the evening.

The Logistics

The District is automobile hostile. There are stop light and speed cameras in many parts of the city. Road signs can be confusing. Some roads are off limits on certain days and times. Be cautious and obey all traffic and parking laws. Parking outside the zoo can be difficult to impossible. During the summer the zoo’s parking lots fill up quickly. I found the earlier I arrived at the zoo the easier it was to find an open parking lot. I’ve only been there once since they instituted the $25 flat rate. This was in March 2019 so I don’t know if the flat rate deters people from parking in the lots. Arriving early at a tourist spot in the District is your best chance of finding a parking spot reasonably close to your destination.

The zoo has strollers and wheelchairs available on a first come, first serve basis. Manual wheelchairs are free. Electronic wheelchairs are $25. There is also a shuttle service to parking lots.[i] The zoo is on an incline so roughly half your visit will probably be uphill.

[i] National Zoo Accessibility,, last accessed 3/24/19.

The Pandas

When President Nixon and First Lady Patricia Nixon went to Beijing in 1972 the Peoples Republic of China gave the United States of America two giant pandas. The female was named Ling-Ling and the male was named Hsing-Hsing. The United States gave China a pair of muskoxen. These giant pandas were the most popular animals in the National Zoo.

A rite of spring in the Washington, DC metro area is speculating if the female panda is pregnant. Throughout Ling-Ling’s life the zoo attempted to produce offspring. Ling-Ling produced 5 cubs but none survived.[i] Ling-Ling died in 1992 and Hsing-Hsing was euthanized in 1999.

In 2000 the National Zoo loaned two giant pandas, Mie Xiang and Tian Tian, from China for 10 years for $10 million. The zoo continued its breeding efforts on Mei Xiang. On July 9, 2005 Mei Xiang gave birth to Tai Shan. Tan Shan was sent to the Wolong Nature Reserve in China on February 4, 2010. Mei Xiang gave birth to Bao Bao on August 23, 2013. Mia Xiang gave birth to Bei Bei on August 22, 2015. Bao Bao was sent to China in 2017.

The panda habitat was originally an inside enclosure with an outside yard. Now the panda enclosure is a sprawling area where visitors can see the pandas. There are areas in the enclosure that are out of sight of the visitors.

The panda exhibit is in a section of the zoo named the Asian Trail. The other Asian animals along the trail include red pandas, which are no relation to the pandas.

[i] National Zoo,, last accessed 3/29/19.

The Great Cats

The lions and tigers are in a large circular enclosure. Barriers within the enclosure keep the lions and tigers separate. This gives these large cats ample room to roam. There are alcoves that overlook the enclosures.

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The zoo used to have a white tiger. While the white tiger was alive there was a plaque at its enclosure explaining it would be the last white tiger at the zoo. The breeding required to get a white tiger, as with many other specialized breeding, results in passing on genetic defects.

The Elephant Trail

The Elephant Exhibit recently underwent an expansion. The exhibit is large enough to house as many as 10 elephants. The exhibit has one male and six female elephants.[i] The viewers have an area for a ground level view and an area for an overhead view.

The Elephant trail apparently squeezed out the giraffes, rhinoceroses, and hippopotamuses which use to share the elephant house and surrounding grounds.

[i] National Zoo,, last accessed 4/6/19.

The Birds

The Bird Exhibit is closed as it is undergoing transformation. The exhibit Experience Migration is scheduled to open by 2021. The main bird house was completed in 1928.[i] Before the transformation the bird exhibit had an outside area with birds that are found in wetlands. Outside the main bird house there were enclosures for large flightless birds. The museum also had a large collection of flamingos in this outside area. Inside the house there were caged areas for some species of birds. There was a dark room for the kiwi exhibit. In the center of the building there was an enclosed area populated with birds and trees where visitors could walk along pathways. One pathway led to an open-air enclosure where visitors could walk among the birds, including peacocks.

[i] National Zoo,, last accessed 4/6/2019.

The Primates

This exhibit includes a learning center, an outdoor exhibit, and a great ape house. There is an outdoor gorilla enclosure behind the great ape house. The zoo keepers spread the food out for the gorillas. This gives the gorillas some exercise. The smell inside the great ape house is difficult to tolerate. The learning center is an excellent place to learn about apes and animals in general. There is a rope high above the exhibit, dubbed the O-Line. Orangutans can use this rope to travel from the learning center to the great ape house. There is an outdoor enclosure for lemurs named Lemur Island.

The American Trail

This section has animals native to North America. This exhibit includes a male and a female bald eagle[i]. This exhibit includes seals and sea lions. The zoo gives seal and sea lion demonstrations. There are above and below surface views of their tanks. The trail also includes North American river otters[ii].

[i] The bald eagle is the national animal of the United States of America.

[ii] Also called Canadian otters.


This exhibit has specimens native to the Amazon River. Strollers have to be left outside. The entrance is on the ground floor, which has a subsurface theme. They have two large fish tanks that have fish from the Amazon. The fish range from neon tetras and guppies to arapaima and silver arowana. They have piranhas. There is a section that is a mockup of an Amazon field lab. Here the zoo explains the piranhas aren’t the eating machines depicted in the movies. This section has small tanks with creatures found in the Amazon.

There are steps up to the surface level. There is also an elevator available. At the surface level there is a pathway, surrounded by trees. Birds and monkeys share the area with the guests. Guests can also look down into the aquariums.

The exit leads to another part of the building that has specimens and items for research. Here they mentioned the reputation of the female black widow spider is exaggerated. The female devouring its mate happens under laboratory conditions but rarely happens in the wild. The area provides information about the drastic decline in the amphibian population.

Kids’ Farm

This exhibit consists of farm animals and has a barnyard look to it. There is construction in the area and the National Zoo’s website advises routes may change and the walk through the fam may be longer than expected.[i] This is a chance to get a close look at farm animals. The exhibit also contains a pond stocked with koi and channel catfish.

[i] National Zoo,, last accessed 4/27/2019.

© 2019 Robert Sacchi


Robert Sacchi (author) on September 20, 2020:

There are a lot of tourist attractions in DC so the Zoo doesn't get the national/international attention. Local TV and radio stations cover the pandas whenever they have a hit a female might be pregnant. The other thing they cover extensively is the Washington Redskins and the Washington Nationals.

Dale Anderson from The High Seas on September 20, 2020:

Robert I had no idea that this zoo even existed. Thanks for bringing it to my attention. I'm going to ask my wife if she wants to go for a visit.

Robert Sacchi (author) on October 17, 2019:

Thank you for reading and commenting. The panda exhibit has always been popular. A right of spring in the DC area is for the local news to speculation on whether the female panda is pregnant.

TripleAMom from Florida on October 17, 2019:

We visited the National Zoo on vacation two years ago. The pandas were definitely our favorite. Good info for those wanting to check it out.

Robert Sacchi (author) on August 22, 2019:

If you every make your way to Washington, DC definitely keep the zoo in mind. It would make an interesting comparison to the San Antonio Zoo.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on August 22, 2019:

It would be such a treat to be able to visit the Smithsonian's National Zoo in person. Thanks for this information and your photos.

Robert Sacchi (author) on May 10, 2019:

Yes, the Zoo is part of the Smithsonian and most of the other Smithsonian sites are on the Washington, DC Mall, which is between the Capital Building and the Washington Monument.

Patricia Scott from North Central Florida on May 10, 2019:

O hoping to visit there I visited the Smithsonian Museum many years ago as a child I am sure this would be an experience to remember Angels once again are headed your way ps

Robert Sacchi (author) on May 06, 2019:

Yes, it is a lot of ground to cover if someone is on a time schedule. Fortunately the zoo is laid out very well so it is easy to find what you are looking for.

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on May 05, 2019:

This information is noted.

DreamerMeg from Northern Ireland on May 05, 2019:

That sounds like an enormous amount of education and interest. 169 acres! That's a lot of ground to cover. Very interesting, thanks

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on May 02, 2019:


Robert Sacchi (author) on May 02, 2019:

the Smithsonian has a policy of not charging admission. This dates back from the Smithsonian's founding. There are other government tourist attractions, such as The White House and The Capital Building that don't charge. This is one thing that gives Washington, DC an edge over other tourists cities. I haven't done the entertainment routine in DC recently but when I did in the '80s I was surprised at how inexpensive it was to see a play.

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on May 02, 2019:

In my countryNigeria, no zoos are free to enter. You have to make some payment depending on time. The government promoted zoos are not either free.

Doris James MizBejabbers from Beautiful South on May 02, 2019:

Admission is free? Man, that's a great deal! Our Little Rock Zoo has priced itself out of reach of ordinary families to take their children on a casual outing. Even my husband and I don't go anymore, and it's just the two of us.

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on April 30, 2019:

Hi, Robert, it is well appreciated. Thanks.

Robert Sacchi (author) on April 30, 2019:

Thank you both.

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on April 30, 2019:

And awesome too!

Edna Straney from Oneonta New York on April 30, 2019:

Great photos!

Robert Sacchi (author) on April 29, 2019:

Thank you all for reading and commenting.

Doris James MizBejabbers - The $25 is for parking. Admission is free. One time the lots were full and I spent about 2 hours looking for a parking spot. The spot was far away from the zoo. Probably the best way to get around the parking fee is to go by Metro.

Miebakagh Fiberesima - I appreciate you and your articles as well.