National Zoo reopens, but it's far from business as usual

By David Montgomery
Thursday, March 3, 2011; 3:18 PM

From The Washington Post archives

Published: January 07, 1996, Sunday, Final Edition

Tamerah Hunt's science project was ruined. Benjamin Grant's birthday party was canceled. Jeanette Smallwood's telephone bill was unpaid. Majid Rahanjam's store lost half its business. And Azy the orangutan dined alone.

The National Zoo slowly reopened yesterday, along with most of the monuments, memorials and museums on the Mall that are the heart of federal Washington, a prelude to the full reopening of the government today. It was like waking up without the first cup of coffee -- the zoo and some other attractions opened late, often to just a smattering of visitors -- and the effects of the federal shutdown lingered.

Like all federal offices and installations caught in the budget battle, the zoo's mission was disrupted. Inquire further, and one learns how the sudden absence of a familiar institution creates fissures that spider through the larger community in surprising directions.

The zoo wasn't special, in that sense. Similar chain reactions emanated from institutions across the federal landscape. But at the zoo, the impact on the elaborately interdependent federal ecosystem was especially well illustrated.

"Most people think the government is just off somewhere pushing paper," said Sandra Watson, a teacher at Mount Vernon Community School in Alexandria, who had to cancel her first-graders' trip to see the reptile exhibit after the children spent weeks learning about snakes. "Most people don't have any idea the extent government funding reaches far out to things like the zoo and children visiting and learning."

The parking lots were empty, except for Lot E, the overflow lot. "If this lot is full, you know you got yourself a busy day," said Robert Hoage, a zoo spokesman. Lot E didn't have any cars, but it had piles of chunky elephant, rhino, hippo and giraffe manure. That's when you know you got yourself a government shutdown.

The manure usually is sent to a greenhouse operated by the Smithsonian Institution for composting, but during the shutdown, recycling hippo scat wasn't deemed essential.

The human population of the zoo during the shutdown was 75 emergency animal keepers and support staff, down from several hundred employees, concessionaires and volunteers for normal operations, plus as many as 20,000 visitors who could have been expected during the December shutdown.

Admission to the zoo is free, but the zoo lost $ 140,000 in gross sales at food and gift concessions during the shutdown that just ended and the one in November, according to Friends of the National Zoo, which operates the concessions. That translates into a loss of about $ 30,000 in net proceeds that would have gone to education and research programs -- more than enough to fund a postdoctoral research fellow for a year.

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