Smithsonian's National Zoo

Smithsonian's National Zoo

Having some extra time off last weekend, together with the slightly warmer temperatures on the East Coast, had me itching for a little road trip. The kids and I decided the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute was a perfect near-ish destination. Off we went, in search of new inspirational animals for our ShopBiodiversity™enamel pin and sticker collections. 

There were a few animals high on our must see list. My eleven year old son wanted to go to the reptile house to see the komodo dragon and the blue iguana - two of his favorite lizards. Meanwhile, my six year old daughter really wanted to see the pandas, including the red panda - yes, even though it isn’t a panda! - but mostly she wanted to run around on a playground.

Serendipity had us park right next to the entrance with the Me and the Bee Playground, which really was a great way to kick off the visit, and I highly recommend it for parents traveling with little ones full of energy. It has a cute pollinator garden theme, which had my brain firing on all cylinders with potential design combinations. A few foot-tall bees were working diligently on their honeycombs, and there were even some flies buzzing around the flower patch. My daughter’s favorite features were the giant hollow log tunnel, and the bright yellow beehive slide.We had to drag ourselves away from the playground - but only after adequate assurances were made that we would return before leaving… 

playground structures in the shape of large yellow hexagonal honeycombs, with children playing

We started off on the American Trail, and (as a huge fan of vintage WPA prints) I personally loved the historic Smokey the Bear posters lining the entrance, with a lush bamboo forest off to one side, and a maned wolf enclosure off to the other.

 Vintage 1952 Smokey the Bear Poster, that says "Promise that you will be careful with matches, with smoke, with camp fires, with any fire"  

The California Sea Lions were probably our favorite critters on that section of trail and, unlike many of the animals who were hiding from the cold, they were in their element in the fortysomething degree February temperatures. There is a cave at the back of their enclosure which reveals a huge glass tank inside, where we could see the seals diving and playing underwater. That additional feature was an impressive surprise.

The tiered rock formations and scattered forests along the downslope of the path led us past the seals and into the territory of the andean bear. Further along that trail is the Amazonia exhibit, which is inside a large building. We were grateful for the chance to go in there and gather some warmth. The ground floor exhibit contained a beautiful low pool and jungle enclosure at the entrance, followed by some good sized tanks and smaller terrariums full of fish, turtles, amphibians, snakes, and spiders native to the Amazon rainforest. The tanks running along the full length of the left side wall are designed to mimic the flooded basin of the Amazon River - the largest river basin in the world. The impressive arapaima floated back and forth along the wall, among other smaller fish. The end of the room led to an unassuming narrow set of stairs, which we followed to the upper level exhibit.

I was not expecting the jungle upstairs! But true to form, the Smithsonian delivered. The rainforest really was hot and humid and delightfully overgrown.

But the greatest delight from my small band of explorers was the unexpected presence of two emperor tamarins frolicking in the branches right above our heads. They were so exuberant, in fact - the tamarins, not my kids (though they were pretty exuberant as well) - that the attendant in the room had to call the zoo keeper because of how close they were to the visitors. What luck, and what excellent timing!


And another amazing encounter was just around the corner. As we headed back towards the entrance on the rainforest level, we spotted an extremely friendly roseate spoonbill perched right on the railing by the exit. We ended up following this gorgeous bird around for a little while, back down stairs, and then back upstairs again. I have a feeling the roseate spoonbill will be next on our list of upcoming designs…

There are a lot more highlights from that trip that I’d love to share, but it will have to wait for another blog post. 

Since conservation is one of our core values, I wanted to be sure to highlight the excellent work the Smithsonian is doing in this area. While poaching for private pet trade is still a leading threat to many species, I’m grateful the days of zoos participating in abuse, and being purely spectacle based, are coming to an end. Instead, we have so many wonderful organizations doing work like the National Zoo:

The Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute plays a leading role in the Smithsonian’s global efforts to save wildlife species from extinction and train future generations of conservationists. SCBI spearheads research programs at its headquarters in Front Royal, Virginia, the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington, D.C., and at field research stations and training sites worldwide. SCBI scientists tackle some of today’s most complex conservation challenges by applying and sharing what they learn about animal behavior and reproduction, ecology, genetics, migration and conservation sustainability.

SCBI scientists study and breed more than 20 species at their headquarters, including those that were once extinct in the wild, like black-footed ferrets and scimitar-horned oryx….

Thanks for joining us on this little adventure. Please subscribe to our monthly newsletter for more adventures in conservation! Plus we'll send you a FREE downloadable coloring book just for signing up! 

There’s no place like Earth!™ 

Pangolin coloring page with information card that says "Subscribe to our newsletter for a free coloring book"   Woman and two children in front of a banner which reads "Smithsonian's National Zoo and Biological Conservation Center. Conservation Starts Here"

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