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.

The animals could tell something was amiss. "I hate to use a word as loaded as depressed," said biologist Melanie Bond, describing the mood of the primates, her specialty. "Their activity level seems to be lower. They're sleeping more."

Shaggy Azy was in a corner, picking at his vegetables. He howled with territorial fervor when a male human approached the outside of his enclosed domain, but he didn't get to do that much during the longest sustained absence of Homo sapiens touristus in zoo history.

To keep the animals in good mental and physical shape during the shutdown, the emergency staff dutifully conducted the usual tests and interactions that form the core of education and entertainment for gawking visitors.

If Selkie the gray seal fetches an orange cone in the seal pool and nobody sees it, did it really happen? "We have to keep up with training the animals, otherwise they lose the behavior," said Joann Sordellini, keeper of the seals and sea lions.

After President Clinton signed the temporary budget deal, furloughed zoo employees and those forced to work without pay knew they would be paid, at least through Jan. 26.

"We had a real small Christmas this year," said Bond, the emergency primate biologist, who lives in a two-zoo-income household. Her husband, Michael Davenport, was furloughed from his job as the reptile collection manager.

Zoo contractors were less fortunate. Like all federal contractors, they will not be paid for the shutdown.

Jeanette Smallwood, an assistant manager in the zoo restaurant, said she is paid $ 7.25 an hour, or about $ 360 every two weeks after taxes. The contracted food service worker was able to apply a week of paid vacation to the shutdown, but she still lost about nine working days for which she will not be paid.

Her salary is the sole income for her two children and her husband in their $375-a-month one-bedroom apartment in Southeast Washington, until he gets his first paycheck from the job he recently started. The telephone bill is among the bills that are overdue, she said. "For the past two days, I had to scrounge whatever [food] was in here," she said at the end of last week. "Bills are piling up."

The ripple effects rolled outside the zoo gates.

Tamerah Hunt, a senior at Oxon Hill High School, started last summer devising an experiment that would break new ground in the behavior of two types of vole, a shy, mouselike creature. It was her required final project for the school's competitive science and technology program, and she was conducting it at the zoo.

"If it had worked out well, it would have been publishable," said Lucy Roberts, a postdoctoral fellow at the zoo who was supervising Hunt.

Instead, the shutdown coincided with the critical three weeks when Tamerah was to work with the baby voles every day. "The shutdown completely blew her project," Roberts said.

Across Connecticut Avenue from the zoo's front gate, the shops and restaurants wilted for the lack of zoo visitors during an already slow time of year. "It's destroying us," said Majid Rahanjam, owner of the Zoo Market, purveying snacks and Kodak film. "Business is at least 50 percent down," Rahanjam said, and he had to send two of his employees home.

While the Republicans and Democrats were tussling over the budget, Benjamin Grant, of Dupont Circle, was getting ready to turn 5 years old. His mom, Beth, had planned a bash for yesterday with 10 friends at the zoo.

Clinton signed the budget deal in the wee hours, but it was too late for Benjamin. The zoo had to cancel the affair. Grant tried to explain the shutdown to the boy. "What does that have to do with my birthday?" Benjamin asked.

"It makes me angry that it affects a 5-year-old," Grant said. "And it just seems rather ludicrous that it does."

Staff writer Anna Borgman contributed to this report.

© 2011 The Washington Post Company