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In Search of Animals

How does the Zoo get its residents?

By Mark Tuai

Asian elephants

(Mehgan Murphy/NZP)

With a sweep of her freckled trunk, Ambika, a 63-year-old Asian elephant, stirs up a storm of dust from her dirt-blanketed back. The layer of debris acts as a form of sunblock and insect repellent. As usual, her actions draw an audience. Children gaze while perching on shoulders. Some onlookers snap photos. Others stand transfixed, marveling at one of the Zoo’s largest animals.

Few of these rapt zoogoers realize they’re looking at a modern rarity: a zoo mammal that began life in the wild. Ambika was born free in India, then captured and put to work in a logging camp. Her life changed dramatically in 1961, when she was presented to the Smithsonian’s National Zoo as a gift from the children of India. Ambika has lived at the Zoo ever since.

Ambika’s dramatic story raises the question of how other animals come to the Zoo. The answers have changed over time.

Collecting Wildlife

As early as 1855, several decades prior to the construction of the Zoo, the Smithsonian received live animals as gifts from various institutions across the United States.

With nowhere to house these specimens, the Smithsonian transferred them to (believe it or not) the United States Insane Asylum. Its superintendent, a Dr. Nichols, received the animals happily, for he perceived them as “a source of harmless amusement and mental diversion to the patients.”

In 1886, the Smithsonian commissioned William Temple Hornaday to collect bison in an attempt to salvage what was left of one of North America’s most emblematic species. The animals he gathered lived for a time on the Mall, in a pen near the Smithsonian castle.

bison on the Mall

(NZP Archives)

Perhaps not coincidentally, Congress soon realized the need for a “scientific institution to shelter and breed North American animals.” Donations of fauna poured into the nation’s new zoological park. Its exhibits included mule deer, prairie dogs, lynx, and a golden eagle donated by President Grover Cleveland.

The Zoo’s wildlife population skyrocketed after 1925, when William Mann became the director. A member of the elite Explorers Club, Mann was a veteran wildlife collector. With the support of the federal government, he conducted numerous expeditions to Africa, South America, and Asia. During a trip to Tanganyika (part of modern-day Tanzania), Mann acquired more than 1,200 animals, increasing the Zoo’s population by 50 percent.

Along with collecting expeditions, the purchase of wildlife was also a common practice among zoos at this time.

Dealers from around the world catered to this need, offering everything from baby elephants and big cats to capybaras and rare parrots.

Modern Methods

Things have changed since then. As wild populations of many species have dwindled, zoo folk have become reluctant to take endangered animals from their habitats unless there is a compelling reason in an individual case. Instead, institutions breed and exchange animals within the zoo population.

Coordinating all those movements and matings is no small challenge. Much of the work is accomplished through the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). The AZA sponsors 46 Taxon Advisory Groups (TAGs), each composed of scientists who focus on a particular type of animal, ranging from felids to marine fishes. Among the tasks for TAG scientists is maintaining a “studbook” for each species. That’s the record of individual animal lineages, so that pairings can be planned to minimize inbreeding.

Mandy Murphy, the Zoo’s assistant registrar, explains, “Based upon recommendations made by scientists, the Zoo will seek out animals that can sustain a healthy population of a certain species.” In addition to making recommendations for animals, TAGs also advise zoos on how to create suitable environments and holding spaces for their inhabitants.

Once a suitable species has been determined, it is added to the Zoo’s collection plan. Exhibit teams can also make requests to acquire certain specimens through a Species Acquisition Plan (SAP). A typical SAP provides an outline of the proposed animal’s diet and habitat requirements, and it explains how adding that animal would enrich the Zoo’s collection. After an SAP is proposed, “it must go through a panel of nutritionists, veterinarians, and directors,” explains Tamie DeWitt, a specialist on invertebrates at the Zoo.

The specialists seek to ensure that the proposed acquisition of an animal is appropriate for both the Zoo and the animal itself. Needless to say, not all requests are granted. And approval doesn’t necessarily mean that the Zoo will be able to obtain the animal right away. Indeed, an approved species can remain in the Zoo’s collection plan for seven years before it has to go through the application process again.

In addition to the Zoo’s own protocols, acquiring a new animal means navigating state and federal regulations, particularly if, as is often the case, the animal is an endangered species. The job of slicing through that red tape falls to Murphy and her colleague, registrar Laura Morse. They not only secure the necessary permits for acquiring and exhibiting an animal, but they also confirm that the Zoo can meet guidelines pertaining to the animal’s new enclosure. ”Not all transactions,” Murphy notes, “are as smooth as we’d like.”

Asian elephants

(Jessie Cohen/NZP)

Animal Ambassadors

Like Ambika, some animals came to the Zoo as gifts from nations eager to showcase their natural treasures. One of the first such arrivals was a Grevy’s zebra, presented by King Menelik of Abyssinia (what is today Ethiopia) to Theodore Roosevelt.

Decades later, the President of Ireland gave a pair of deer to the Kennedys. Mrs. Kennedy was eager to keep them at the White House, so the chief usher (the civil servant who runs the executive mansion) checked with the Zoo about their care and feeding. Zoo staff warned that deer can be unpredictable and dangerous and suggested that the animals come to the Zoo instead. They did.

giant pandas
(Jessie Cohen/NZP)

Perhaps the most celebrated of all Zoo arrivals were Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing, the Zoo’s first pair of giant pandas. A gift from China in 1972, they cast a spell that still bewitches many Washingtonians.

Four years later, on the United States’ bicentennial, Sri Lanka presented Amy Carter with an Asian elephant rescued from a well into which she had fallen. That animal, Shanthi, gave birth in 2001 to a male, Kandula.

Today, emblematic animals at the Zoo include the kiwi (unique to New Zealand) and the Japanese giant salamander. From Asia Trail to the Great Cats exhibit, the Zoo’s residents hail from nearly every corner of Earth, creating an embassy row of the natural world.

Changing Times, Unchanging Goal

Since the days of Hornaday and Mann and vast collecting trips, the Zoo has evolved considerably. What began as a refuge for North American fauna has become an international ark. Yet the Zoo’s paramount theme—conservation—abides from generation to generation, as humans strive to become better stewards of the amazing, imperiled creatures with whom we share the planet.

MARK TUAI, the magazine’s fall 2011 intern, is a student at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

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Smithsonian Zoogoer 41(1) 2012. Copyright 2012 Friends of the National Zoo. All rights reserved.