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Zoo Appeal Visit These Centers For Research, Education, and Conservation

Mar 17, 2024 06:25PM ● By Story and Photography By Lisa Ballard

The red panda blinked at me from a tangle of branches, unconcerned, though I stood only 20 feet away. It looked the size of a large racoon but with red instead of brown fur and a black and white mask instead of a solid black one. In fact, red pandas are not panda bears at all, but most closely related to raccoons.

Though considered carnivores, most of a red panda’s diet is bamboo, which is one of the few things they have in common with more familiar giant pandas. This one must have had a full belly. It crept confidently along a limb to the point where it connected to the tree trunk and then curled up with its lush tail wrapped around itself. It blinked at me again then closed its eyes. I backed away, leaving the cute creature to its nap. How special to watch this endangered species, but I wasn’t in Tibet or Nepal, where red pandas live. I was in Washington, DC, at the National Zoo.

I love animals, so zoos have always drawn me. They are places where I’ve seen many different species from around the globe, including extremely rare, elusive animals, some of which don’t live in the wild anymore. In fact, zoos are credited with bringing a number of species back from the brink.

California Condors

Take the California condor, the largest land bird in North America and a conservation success story thanks to the captive breeding program at the San Diego Zoo. Due to loss of habitat, collisions with power lines, illegal egg collecting and shootings, and environmental toxins, by the early 1980s only 22 California condors existed. After receiving an orphaned chick, the zoo started to successfully breed and hatch condors. By 1987, the last one in the wild was brought to the zoo. Working with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the California Department of Fish and Game, and the National Audubon Society, the zoo built a “condor-minium,” six enormous aviaries that allowed these huge birds, which can weigh over 20 pounds and have nine-and-half-foot wingspans, free flight as the breeding program continued.

By 1992, the first zoo-hatched California condors were introduced into the wild. Today, there are almost 600 California condors, about 400 of which live in the wild. While they are still scarce and rely heavily on captive breeding to survive, their populations are more robust than before, and they are breeding in the wild again, too.


Exotic Oddballs

Not all animals in zoos are endangered, though some are rather odd-looking. After the red panda fell asleep, I wandered into a building that housed aquatic animals and came upon an Australian snake-necked turtle. It swam next to the glass in its tank, so close that I felt as if I were underwater with it. It did, indeed, have a ridiculously long neck, 10 inches from nose to shell! Watching this peculiar creature was both entertaining and educational. Modern zoos are as much about exposing visitors to animals that we might never see as they are about taking care of them.

Upon hearing the oohs and aahs of several grade-schoolers, I left Mr. Long Neck to see what fascinated the kids. They were nose to nose with an alligator snapping turtle, a prehistoric beast separated from its youthful audience by an inch of glass. Its beady blue eyes stared intensely at us. Spikes surrounded its head like a prickly mane. Its mouth was open, ready to chomp onto anything that swam by. Those kids and I will always remember it, and maybe care about it, which is one of reasons why zoos are no longer simply cages filled with captive critters. They are true partners in conservation that help create an affinity for all kinds of wildlife in faraway places.

More Critter Close-Ups

Zoos get people to care about local species, too. In one of the National Zoo’s aviaries, a bright red cardinal perching on a wire whistled and trilled at me as I walked under it. I also saw a variety of ducks, including my favorite, a red-headed canvasback drake. Then I came to a beaver pond where a zookeeper fed Bucky some salad greens. The beaver’s broad dark tail dangled over a rock in my direction as it stuffed lettuce into its mouth. I had seen other beavers swimming in backcountry ponds on occasion, but this was my first clear look at its leathery, water-slapping appendage.

I walked on, pausing to watch an elephant swish some hay into its mouth with its long trunk. An endangered red-ruffed lemur walked headfirst down a tree trunk. A sloth bear leapt un-sloth-like from one rock to another, and a mother monkey nursed her baby as it ambled nimbly from branch to branch.

The birds were particularly impressive. At a water hole, flamingos stood on one leg, their long necks curling and stretching in the spring sunshine. Further along in its own grassy enclosure, a whooping crane—another conservation success story thanks to zoos—preened its white feathers with its long, strong bill. In one of the aviaries, a magnolia warbler, a stunning yellow-bellied songbird that breeds in New Hampshire, stretched its tail feathers like a black and white tail fan. There was so much to see!

Perhaps the creepiest creature of the 2,000 animals (400 species) in residence at the National Zoo was the naked mole rat. Also called a “sand puppy,” this pale, hairless subterranean oddity is native to Africa. It was four inches long, with two long teeth that it uses for digging more than eating. Nearly blind, it was uniquely adapted to underground life, able to move forward and backward at a rapid pace inside its tunnels. It also eats its own poop, an adaptation for living in such an enclosed environment.

After my encounter with the mole rat, I was glad to emerge from the darkness back onto the walking paths that traveled to brighter habitats within the National Zoo’s 163 acres. Around two million visitors visit the National Zoo each year, as much to enjoy its outdoor environs as its exhibits. Like all zoos, it is undeniably a park where animals are on display for human enjoyment, but it also does much more than that. It’s a center of research, education, and conservation. Biologists study the animals closely, gaining valuable clues to their behavior and diet. The welfare of the animals is at the heart of its mission, and it certainly contributes to maintaining wildlife diversity on our planet.

Critics say that animals in captivity don’t act like they do in the wild, but in some cases, it’s the only option to prevent them from becoming extinct. And since the odds of me ever seeing a Himalayan snow leopard in the wild are likely zero, my heart soars on the rare occasion I get to see one at a zoo. 


For More Information

To plan a visit to the National
Zoo in Washington, DC, visit


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