“Our collection is a living collection,” says Saffoe, curator of the zoo’s big cats. “They need to be cared for every day, no matter what is happening above our heads.”
The National Zoo is always a standout during the budget battles that periodically rock Washington’s vast constellation of federal agencies. Although not the most vital to national security or human welfare, the zoo and the Smithsonian Institution to which it belongs are among the most visible and popular faces of federal Washington. More than 2 million visitors a year come to stare at the animals. When disruptions loom, whether because of snowstorms or power politics, zoo officials get an earful.
“People really want to be sure that the animals are going to be cared for,” zoo spokeswoman Pamela Baker-Masson says. “We hear it all the time when things like this are in the news — phone calls, social media. They really want to be reassured.”
Be reassured, zoo lovers. The cats will get their beef, the pandas their bamboo and the seals their herring, and all from familiar fingers. Most of the zoo’s 110 keepers, biologists and curators are rated as essential personnel in the event of government shutdowns and furloughs.
“We will never compromise on human safety, and we’ll never compromise animal welfare,” promises Dennis Kelly, director of the National Zoo, which has a $50 million budget and employs 450 people. “These people are incredibly devoted to these animals.”
Officials are scrambling to make sure the care keeps flowing, even as the sequester threatens to put the squeeze on other functions, including education, research and administration.
The Smithsonian is bracing for at least a 5 percent budget cut, which would amount to $40 million if the cuts weren’t restored before September, according to Linda St. Thomas, the institution’s chief spokeswoman. While the Pentagon has announced possible furloughs of up to 800,000 civilian defense workers, the Smithsonian plans to absorb the sequester mainly through freezing hiring, reducing training and delaying new equipment purchases and construction.
Some zoo projects, such as the planned acquisition of cheetahs for the research facility in Front Royal may be reconsidered, Kelly says. But with five curator jobs and numerous keeper slots vacant because of three years of frozen budgets, the sequester could nudge the zoo closer to what Kelly calls the doomsday scenario: closing one of its expensive major exhibits.