The capybaras, which look like giant guinea pigs, arrived in October after an absence of nearly 40 years. The black howler monkeys, gone since 1972, are back. And the brand-new plum-headed parrots should take up residence this fall.
The National Zoo, intent on rebuilding its collection after years of decline, has those and several other new or returning animals on exhibit or in the acquisition pipeline. The goal is to invigorate the zoo's aging animal population by bringing in a younger, more diverse group of mammals and birds while enhancing the collection of reptiles, amphibians and invertebrates.
Elena Bell, a fourth-grader at D.C's Capital City Charter School, cleans Rose, a Polled Herford bull, at Kids' Farm.
(Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post)
Deaths of older animals, transfers to other zoos and the halting of several breeding programs have severely impacted the zoo's population and variety. The numbers plummeted from more than 6,100 animals representing 485 species in 1992, according to annual zoo inventories, to a current estimate of 2,470 animals representing 435 species.
"If you don't keep track of the animals, you end up with a geriatric collection, and that's what happened here," said Bill Xanten, the zoo's general curator for animal programs, discussing the need to replenish exhibits. "The collection really fell off."
Xanten retired from the zoo in 1996 after a 40-year career that began as a keeper. He returned in February 2003 as the 163-acre animal park was facing its worst crisis in decades. The accidental poisoning of two red pandas the previous month had sparked a congressional inquiry into animal care under Lucy H. Spelman, the zoo's director since 2000. And the American Zoo and Aquarium Association was raising concerns about the stagnant animal collection and deteriorating facilities.
Armed with a mandate from Spelman to rebuild the collection, Xanten said he met with the curatorial staff and gave them carte blanche in acquiring more animals. He also worked with the American Zoo and Aquarium Association's Species Survival Program coordinators, who oversee animal placements for breeding.
Exhibits at the Elephant House were an immediate concern. The baby elephant was drawing crowds rivaling the celebrated giant pandas. But the zoo's sole pygmy hippo had just died, and the lone giraffe, offspring of two that died the previous year, was scheduled to be sent to another zoo to breed.
Over the next several months, the zoo brought in two giraffes and two pygmy hippos. The Elephant House also got three capybaras -- the largest rodent in the world -- which had not been exhibited at the zoo since 1965.
"They're a big hit with visitors," Xanten said.
Another popular attraction is the newly opened Kids' Farm, which offers visitors a chance to pet and help care for various farm animals.
The zoo is increasing its small-mammals collection, adding species and bringing in companion animals for existing exhibits. Besides two howler monkeys, which is the loudest land animal, visitors can view a tamandua, a tree-dwelling anteater from South America, not seen at the zoo since 1975, and two prehensile-tailed porcupines, not exhibited since 1987.
At the Bird House, curator Paul Tomassoni has boosted the collection and recently added a female tinamou from South America, a species not exhibited at the zoo since 1989.
Several new colorful and songbird species will arrive this year, including five plum-headed parrots, which the zoo will breed; a red-billed blue magpie, not exhibited since 1994; and two hooded pitas, last exhibited in 1992.
"We've got about 40 birds lined up to come in this year," Tomassoni said. Outdoor acquisitions are "winter hardy" and can be exhibited year-round.