Probably the best-known animals of the NZP are the giant pandas that arrived in 1972 from The People's Republic of China, a gift more significant diplomatically than zoologically. The pandas are housed in a large indoor-outdoor building vaguely suggesting a suburban split-level home. Splendid as the complex is, the pandas are not exceptional zoo exhibits, tending to be retiring, more out of natural sloth than timidity. Two nearby displays, one of kangaroos and another of meerkats—perky little relatives of the mongoose—are on all counts but fame better exhibits. The animals are lively and relaxed, the enclosures attractive and a visitor can watch the meerkats and kangaroos without being jostled.
Nevertheless, the pandas remain the superstars of the Washington zoo and have drawn an extra million visitors. A number of Washington VIPs have wanted pictures of themselves and their constituents with the pandas and it has become a traditional function of the NZP to cope with such PR situations, especially when a foreign government or politician decided to donate a wild animal. Because of this, some excellent bears, elephants, tigers, goats and other beasts have come to the zoo, but so have some special problems. Donors expect the zoo to provide important and prominent display areas for their gifts and tend to be impatient and unsympathetic when these are slow in coming. Celebrity animals require celebrity treatment. Being a politically dependent institution in the most political of cities, the NZP does what it must do in these matters.
With all its concerns, the NZP still manages to be one of the leading research zoos in the world. Currently, $700,000 a year is budgeted to support 40 projects. For example, the zoo's chief veterinarian, Clinton Grey, is now developing a method for making reversible contraceptive implants in big cats. Felines breed so readily in captivity that disposing of lion, tiger and leopard kittens is a real problem. Since it is becoming more difficult to find and collect these animals in the wild, nobody wants to sterilize the zoo stock, and separating the sexes increases management problems and may alter behavior. A reversible contraceptive would allow young animals to be produced more or less on a space-available basis. Other scientists working with NZP have recently investigated such complicated matters as social weaning among three-toed sloths, the activity patterns of silky anteaters and the role of olfaction in the mating behavior of hamsters.
"We feel that beyond its responsibility to the visiting public, a major zoo has a responsibility to other species," says Ted Reed. "So we support general zoological research. Another obvious way to help is by providing a sanctuary for some species. The P�re David's deer and Przewalski's horse, for example, are two beasts that no longer survive in the wild. Their native habitat is now a zoo. The Siberian tiger, Arabian oryx, golden marmoset and a good many others may very shortly be in this category. If breeding populations can be established in zoos, maybe in time we can find ways to reestablish them in the wild. Or at least preserve some of these critically endangered animals as we preserve great works of art. The unique genetic combination that makes up a living species is of course irreplaceable."
THE BRONX ZOO
The Bronx opened in 1899 largely because a group of wealthy New Yorkers—Roosevelts, Carnegies, Osborns, La Farges, Roots and Grants—felt it unseemly that Washington and Philadelphia should have zoos while their city did not.
Through the years affluent New Yorkers have done as much for the Bronx—occasionally even leading zoological field parties—as diplomats, politicans and federal agencies have done for the NZP. Because of its wealth and influence, the Bronx became the first American zoo to exhibit musk oxen, gorillas, okapis, king penguins and a duckbill platypus.
The Bronx may also have been the first and last U.S. zoo to exhibit a man, although European zoos frequently showed men in what were called ethnographic displays. Ota Benga, a Congo pygmy brought over for the St. Louis World's Fair, decided he didn't want to go back home when the fair closed. An arrangement was made to "board" him at the Bronx zoo for a few weeks in September 1906. The zoo director, William Hornaday, explained that by having Ota Benga cavort about in the chimp cage he was only placing the "interesting little African where the people of New York may see him without annoyance or discomfort to him." However, the display caused howls of public protest. Ota Benga left the zoo, was passed along as the ward of various individuals and charitable groups, until he committed suicide near Lynchburg, Va.
The Bronx, like its longtime institutional colleague and competitor, the National, found itself in midcentury with a plant that was growing increasingly run-down and unattractive and it, too, has embarked on construction and renovation projects, though not as costly or extensive as those going on in Washington.
One of the most interesting and ingenious is the World of Darkness, a unique complex in which the visitor walks through darkened halls, past glass-fronted enclosures dimly lit with bluish or reddish lights. Each alcove is devoted to an environmentally homogeneous group of nocturnal mammals—birds, reptiles and amphibians—many of which would not be active in a conventionally lighted display. The best of the many fine World of Darkness alcoves is a recreation of a Caribbean limestone cave. Many fanciers feel that in no other zoo are bats, for obvious reasons hard to exhibit, so well displayed.