Zoo Director’s Remarks from Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton Town Hall Event (March 15, 2023)
Good evening. My name is Brandie Smith and I am Director of the Smithsonian National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute. Also joining from the Smithsonian, I am pleased to introduce Julissa Marenco, Assistant Secretary for Communications and External Affairs and Chief Marketing Officer.
We have two locations, the Zoo and the Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal, Virginia. Our animal care experts and scientists care for and study more than 2,100 animals from nearly 400 species, including some of the world’s most endangered species. For the purposes of this evening, we will focus on our zoo property, which is 163 acres in northwest Washington, DC.
Thank you, Congressman Norton, for inviting me to attend your town meeting, and thank you also to my DDOT and National Park Service colleagues.
I know many of you tonight would like to address access to the zoo grounds, specifically the multi-purpose walkway that runs through the zoo grounds and our free visitor pass system.
Both access issues directly concern the safety of visitors, staff and the animals in our care. The zoo is consistently identified as the top family destination in our area. It brings incredible value to our city and our neighborhood. Above all, my team and I place and value the safety of our visitors, employees and animals as our top priority. Our trail and pass system decisions relate directly to this priority, providing our guests with the best overall experience.
With respect to the trail, the National Park Service is responsible for the entire multi-use trail. There is a small section, just over half a mile long, that runs through the zoo’s grounds. There is an alternative, shorter trail that is less than a fifth of a mile and does not go through the zoo grounds but through the Beach Drive tunnel.
After the trail was closed as part of the Rock Creek Park Multi-Use Trail Rehabilitation Project, the trail reopened on October 1, 2022. The zoo’s security needs were communicated as part of the trail planning and we gave much thought to how trail users would be affected by our opening hours and concluded that we should allow access an additional hour before the zoo opens and a Hour after closing could extend. This is because our premises are appropriately staffed and/or may be patrolled by zoo police. Today we are now open from 8am to 6pm which means the trail section of the zoo opens at 7am and closes at 7pm. During our winter hours, the zoo grounds are open from 8am to 4pm, with the trail opening at 7am and closing at 5pm
We know that there are local residents who would like the zoo path to remain open at all times. I understand. The National Park Service and DDOT did an excellent job on the renovation. However, there are safety reasons that prevent us from staying open longer.
The USDA and Association of Zoos and Aquariums require that the zoo meet industry safety standards, one requirement of which is a continuous perimeter fence. The fence prevents unauthorized persons from entering the zoo grounds. This protects our animals, our employees and any person who might accidentally end up in an unsafe place. It also acts as an additional containment barrier for the animals. For these reasons, I hope it is clear that leaving the zoo’s gate open any longer is not feasible.
Now let’s talk about how to visit the zoo. When we reopened during COVID we introduced a free timed entry ticket system. This policy has been adjusted based on the rise and fall in COVID cases in the DMV area. We have learned the value visitor passes can bring to our zoo and the local community and we plan to continue the free entry system. The passes – no longer timed – allow us to monitor and manage visitor capacity, plan staffing and guest amenities, and reduce local traffic congestion. Not only do we offer a much safer environment, we also offer a much better experience for all zoo guests.
The procedure for obtaining tickets is similar to that of many cultural institutions, museums and zoos. Visitors can purchase free admission tickets and/or paid parking tickets online through the zoo’s website prior to their visit.
To accommodate members of our community who may have limited access to technology, a limited number of day passes are available at each entrance, capacity permitting. When a visitor arrives at the zoo, all they have to do is inform Guest Services that they need help obtaining a pass and a trained team member will assist them.
A priori knowledge of attendance enables efficient planning and responsible parking operations, particularly with regard to staffing and the provision of guest amenities. Now we can better manage large groups, avoiding long lines and traffic delays on Connecticut Avenue and in the park. In addition to an improved overall experience, this also allows for easier access for emergency response.
This brings us back to our priority of improving our security. In the event of an emergency, badges allow us to have a more accurate count of the number of visitors who need to be managed or evacuated in an emergency situation. Overall, we’ve had minimal issues or concerns reported with the free ticket system.
Change is always an adjustment and takes time. I understand this is a change for our local community. I sincerely hope that everyone here tonight can realize that we’ve been an important part of our city since 1891. As the zoo’s current manager, it is my duty to ensure that we continually improve, maintain the highest standards, educate and inspire and protect nearly two million visitors and hundreds of employees annually. And yes, fulfill our conservation mission to protect animals and save species.
Thank you very much,
John and Adrienne Mars Director
Smithsonian National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute