Concrete letters spell "zoo" at the entrance to the National Zoo in Washington
Gary Cameron/Reuters

A proposal to ramp up security at the National Zoo would undermine a historic design that weaves nature into the lives of Washingtonians.

There are plenty of tourist traps in the nation’s capital, but the National Zoological Park isn’t one of them. Tucked into a residential part of northwest Washington, D.C., it’s a cherished local amenity. Folks who live close to the zoo in the neighborhood of Mount Pleasant fall asleep to the sounds of lions roaring. Residents of the District—who follow the sex lives of the zoo’s giant pandas as if they were the stars of a telenovela—were collectively dismayed to find out last week that the giant panda Mei Xiang was only pseudopregnant.

But most of all, they enjoy the zoo as one of the city’s best parks. So it came as a shock to locals when the Washington Business Journal reported that major changes might be headed to the National Zoo. On Thursday, the Smithsonian Institution will bring a proposal before the National Capital Planning Commission to bolster its security apparatus by adding perimeter fencing. The Smithsonian aims to radically scale back the zoo’s current pedestrian entrances (from 13 to 3). Eventually, security checkpoints will feature magnetometers for screening every visitor.

The news touched off widespread criticism from residents who have always lived with a zoo that’s open to the city—indeed, one that’s woven into the fabric of northwest D.C. According to the report, visitors would only be subject to screenings at the new security checkpoints on days when there are large numbers of visitors. Greater Greater Washington, the city’s urbanist wonk blog, called bunk, launching a petition to nix the proposal.   

“This is an example of what people call the ‘one-way ratchet’ theory: security measures only get increased, and are never decreased,” Matt Dickens wrote on the site.

[UPDATE 7/12: In response to public feedback, the National Capital Planning Commission announced that it was postponing its review of the Smithsonian’s proposed security upgrades. “NCPC requested that the Smithsonian provide a brief security assessment and conduct public outreach and meetings with members of the community and other stakeholders to explain their proposed plans prior to NCPC’s next monthly meeting in September,” reads the group’s statement. “NCPC received more than 250 comments.”]

Free and unrestricted access to the zoo is something locals treasure. But the significance of the site—and the nature of the change that the Smithsonian is proposing—goes further than cutting off a beloved running route. The National Zoological Park is part of the larger national Rock Creek Park system, and sequestering the zoo would interrupt both. The zoo is much more than a Smithsonian facility. It’s an urban gateway into nature, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted to amplify the landscape setting. Security theater would suppress the National Zoological Park’s distinguishing historic features.

A topographic map of the National Zoological Park created in 1899 (Library of Congress)

Congress established the National Zoological Park in 1889. William Temple Hornaday, who was the Smithsonian Institution’s curator for the “Department of Living Animals,” needed a permanent home for the 170 or so creatures he kept in a popular display near the Smithsonian Castle: bison, bears, vultures, vipers, you name it. To build the first federal zoo, Hornaday worked with then–Secretary of the Smithsonian Samuel Langley as well as Olmsted, who had designed New York’s Central Park (with Calvert Vaux) half a century earlier.

At the time, the idea to build a zoo inside a park would have been utterly novel. In fact, the concept of a national park itself was still new. The nation established Yellowstone National Park, the world’s first wildlife preserve, just a few years prior, in 1871. Rock Creek Park didn’t yet exist when Olmsted designed the National Zoological Park. But his son, Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., helped to realize his father’s vision for a preserve for the Rock Creek Valley. Olmsted Jr. served as a member of the Senate’s turn-of-the-century McMillan Commission, which considered the zoo to be part of the larger parks movement.

“Although regularly open to the public as a place of recreation, the purpose of the park is distinctly specialized, namely, to preserve and exhibit a collection of living animals under agreeable and natural surroundings,” reads the 1902 McMillan Report. “The health of the animals and the convenience of the public in seeing them must be the controlling considerations” in the park’s development.

Map of the National Zoological Park made by the U.S. Geological Survey in 1914 (Library of Congress)

The Olmsteds designed the National Zoological Park to be the meeting-place between the city and the sylvan. The city grew up around the National Zoological Park; the park’s many pedestrian entrances were designed to be seamless points of contact between urban life and nature, and they still serve that function today. “The Zoo was not meant to be an isolated element in Washington’s development,” reads its 1969 nomination to the National Register of Historic Places.

Neither Olmsted could have predicted the modern threats to public space today. But the “controlling considerations” that they outlined have worked well for the National Zoological Park for more than a century.

The Smithsonian notes that most visitors already use the three primary entrances. (At this time, the only plans up for review before the National Capital Planning Commission involve the installation of fencing.)

“Limiting the number of ways people enter the Zoo will enhance security and safety year-round,” the Smithsonian said in a statement. “For the past four years during high visitation days or when there has been an increased threat level, security at these entrances has included bag checks and additional screening. The Zoo will continue this practice. On most days, visitors will use these three entrances as they do now.”

The Smithsonian’s specific security concerns are not public. But it’s far from clear that creating bottlenecks at the park’s entrances would deter an awful episode, since a determined agent could terrorize tourists waiting in line just as easily as inside the zoo.

Back in 2014, a 14-year-old shot two other teenagers in an alleged gang altercation just outside the zoo’s main entrance. The zoo began mulling new security features the following year. “Everybody is used to [having] their bag checked going into a museum,” D.C. Council member Mary Cheh told a local broadcast affiliate at the time.

The Smithsonian plans to eliminate all but the three primary entrances to the National Zoological Park (depicted here as the larger circles). (Smithsonian Institution)

While that’s true, it’s nothing to brag about. And in any case, the worst crime that’s ever happened inside the zoo is embezzlement. In ratcheting up park security, the Smithsonian may be responding less to any specific prospect for violence and more in keeping with security theater across Washington. Metal detectors and bag checks are a drag at museums and ballparks. It’s worse at airports, where security theater is a damper on national productivity and not even particularly effective.

At the National Zoological Park, though, security theater runs contrary to the whole point of the zoo-as-park. Placing a natural preserve so close to the city was always meant to draw crowds, and as far back as the McMillan Report, mitigating those crowds has been an evolving concern. But the concern has always been to preserve the park’s openness—since the whole point was to inject nature into people’s lives, not under glass and at a remove.

Langley, the Smithsonian’s third secretary, wrote that the zoo “is intended to have in connection with other and remote national parks in the West a representation of all our North American animals . . . and it is situated in the national capital to serve as a constant object lesson of what Congress may do.”

Adding controlled checkpoints to the National Zoological Park would be a different lesson. For more than a century, the zoo has invited visitors (and District residents in particular) to experience nature inside the city. Its informal entrances are part of that experience: a reminder that the natural world is close, and it is our responsibility. There are already too many barriers to that understanding.

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