ZooLook – Smithsonian’s National Zoo

ZooLook #2 at the National Zoo!  I’ve been visiting zoos for years, and want to share my observations with the world.  My ZooLooks intend to do just that, examining interpretive materials, exhibits, and everything in between.  These opinions are entirely my own, and were made from the observations of only 1 visit.

Smithsonian’s National Zoo – Washington D.C.

Visit date: Wednesday, June 19th

Photo: An orangutan crossing into another habitat section via overhead cable, directly over the guest path.


First glance:  The Zoo is free, but maps are $2.00.  Instead, I bought the iPhone app for the same price.  Along with plotting my location on the Zoo map, the app provides a list of the days activities and portals to more information.  Since the app technology is well refined and the percentage of smart phone visitors is only going up, good move National Zoo!

Map from the National Zoo AppIMG_0009

I also used the Cleveland Park stop from the Red Line Metro.  It takes you though a lovely shopping neighborhood, and is a very subtle hill.  Much more pleasant than the Woodley Park/Zoo stop.

As a free zoo, the National Zoo has a much looser feel than some high-priced fortresses. While it wasn’t as spectacular as some zoos, it was truly a part of the community and genuinely interested in serving the public.  There is also an overall high commitment to conservation, something other zoos should emulate.


Again, as an old and free zoo, there weren’t many showstoppers.  There weren’t even as many exhibits as I envisioned, but there were some pretty spectacular animals in the collection, and there enclosures were quality.  Themed by habitat mostly, exhibit sets transport you to the region with culture, industry, conflict, social issues, ecology, and everything else about the animals’ world.  Exhibits were built and filled to be interpretive and interesting, and that’s all they’re supposed to do.  Interesting touches and enrichment were common as well.


Interpretation:  Some of the interpretive materials have yet to be overhauled, and others are clearly fresh and intentional.  Even the standard animal detail signs were easy to read, and standardized to give exactly the information visitors want (how big, what does it eat, where does it live, etc).  One in particular that stood out to me was a pair of interactive boards showing the impact of habitat transformation on tigers.  I apologize for the poor photos, but the first shows an intact forest, teeming with prey when visitors press the buttons.  The second shows that the prey has been diminished and reshuffled with different land uses.


Another few I noticed, at the Asian elephant exhibit, had different strengths.  One had a list of how to help options, but it seemed a bit preachy and strong.  It was well placed, but if you hadn’t read the entire interpretive set (as nearly nobody does), you’d be a little confused and offended by these mandates.  The other however, is a donation collection sign where visitors can contribute to specific causes.  I loved how it gave visitors a concrete way to involve themselves with elephant conservation right as they felt a connection with the elephants themselves.


Bottom Line:  The National Zoo is an impressive zoo that is easily accessible to the urban community.  Most of the interpretation has been updated, and the exhibits are one and the same with the interpretive materials.  Basically, of the new exhibits, the entire experience seeks to transform the guest and create understanding and a connection to the natural world.  It has a legendary commitment to conservation, so even though it lacks some of the amenities one might expect from such a famous zoo, it still has the right stuff where it counts.  


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