Zoo Neighborhood Council Meeting: Jan. 26, 2022

On Jan. 26, 2022, the Smithsonian’s National Zoo held a meeting with new Zoo Director Brandie Smith and the Zoo Neighborhood Council (ZNC). The ZNC provides a clear and consistent forum for the Zoo to share relevant news, upcoming events and operations with local community leaders and stakeholders. These meetings serve as a soundboard where all parties can pinpoint areas that need improvement and work together to address those areas. Detailed minutes of the meeting follow below.

Dr. Brandie Smith has been at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute for 13 years and has been in the zoo profession for more than 30 years. Previously, she served as curator of mammals, curator of giant pandas, head of animal care and deputy director before assuming the role of John and Adrienne Mars director.

Zoo Neighborhood Council members representing Council Member Mary Cheh, ANCs 3C01 and 3C09, Woodley Park Community Association and Cleveland Park Community Association introduced themselves. Several representatives spoke on the value of the ZNC as an outlet for communication and transparency between the Zoo and the surrounding communities. Emails updates from the Zoo have been helpful to ZNC members who receive questions from their constituents.

Dr. Smith discusses her priorities for the Zoo, including: (1) stabilizing the Zoo’s finances and staffing situation, both of which have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic; (2) using data collected from the new ticketing reservation system to inform decisions about Zoo operations and guest experience improvements; (3) continuing to fulfill our mission to save species through our animal care, scientific research and public outreach programs.

The ZNC discussed how the Smithsonian’s/Zoo’s closures during the COVID-19 pandemic have impacted the local community. With regards to the rolling closures recently implemented by the Smithsonian, all agreed that the top priority is balancing the safety of the animals, staff and visitors. In winter, there is a lull in visitation to the Zoo, but the Zoo wants to be a community presence and an outlet for families to experience and enjoy nature in a safe environment. In general, the impact from the pandemic on small businesses is enormous.  The Zoo acknowledged that local businesses—particularly those located near its entrance—rely on Zoo patrons. The Zoo has two significant events coming up in the spring and fall which will help boost attendance. The paid parking pass system—implemented because of the pandemic—has helped improve traffic at the Zoo’s Connecticut Ave. entrance greatly. 

Dr. Smith discussed upcoming construction projects, including ongoing maintenance to the 133-year-old Zoo. In 2022, the Zoo is heavily investing in infrastructure repairs at its boiler plant, commissary, horticulture and maintenance buildings, as well as shoring up the public walkway at the Great Cats exhibit and several animal holding areas that are behind the scenes. New animals (including binturongs, addax, and an ostrich) will join the Zoo’s collection, and habitat renovations at the Cheetah Conservation Station will improve visitors’ animal viewing and enhance their overall Zoo experience. 

Events are returning to the Zoo as safety allows. Some are dependent upon securing sponsorship and volunteers. Enhances visitor experience through special activities and animal demonstrations. The Zoo is working to rebuild its Special Events team following the dissolution with FONZ.

  • Giant Panda 50th Anniversary – The Zoo will send the ZNC a program of events once finalized. Discussed the possibility of declaring “panda week” in recognition.
  • Easter Monday
  • Earth Day
  • International Family Equality Day
  • Brew at the Zoo
  • Birds In Flight – Allows guests an up-close view of birds while the Bird House is closed. Keeping safety of animals in mind; birds do not appear to be susceptible to COVID-19.
  • Bird House Opening – As the opening approaches, the Zoo will extend an invitation to the ZNC to be among the first to see the renovated exhibit.
  • Spirits Tasting
  • Conservation Discovery Day (in person or virtual)
  • Boo at the Zoo
  • ZooLights (tentative)

Neighbors echo the Zoo’s passion for this event. In evaluating whether it will be possible for the Zoo to host its holiday lights display, Zoo leadership is considering: (A) the financial implications of being competitive with other displays in the region; (B) the staff and volunteer time needed to run the event; and (C) Ability to secure a sponsor(s). The decision to host ZooLights will need to be made many months in advance to ensure all necessary pieces are in place, even though the situation surrounding COVID is uncertain. The Zoo acknowledged that local businesses—especially restaurants—see a significant drive in traffic during ZooLights. 

Dr. Smith said she would be happy to attend future ANC meetings.