THERE WERE great moments, horrible moments, too, and Theodore H. T Reed, who is retiring April 1 after 28 years as director of the National Zoo, is considering writing a book about his 32 years around zoos to help guys coming along.

Recently, Reed sat on a high stool in his office, his cane at his side (he had a hip replaced in December) and the great procession of animals paraded before his eyes in a semi-peaceable kingdom. There was hardly a one he didn't like, and nary a one he didn't feel responsible for.

"The thing that's clear now is that the zoo animals don't belong any more to San Diego or Memphis or Washington or wherever the zoo is. They belong to America, to the world. You remember wonderful old Dr. Beebe at New York, who used to say gorillas would never be born in a zoo. Now they're commonplace.

"As a matter of fact, I remember the great paper read after Columbus, Ohio, produced the first infant gorilla. What a solemn occasion, what a milestone. We were all on our best behavior, we zoo directors, looking as sharp and grave as possible, and all went well until the man said that unlike humans, the male gorilla picked up the 300-pound gorilla and threw her across the room, following mating. A young zoo fellow in the audience called out, 'The distinguished speaker has just forgotten what it is to be young,' and we all broke up.

"I guess you are specially fond of the animals you were closest to and worked with most; in my case, the white tiger and the pandas. You never forget those animals, like your first girl."

It was suggested there are differences, but Reed (who does not much like being amplified, corrected or trimmed back) said:

"Well, all I can say is I remember vividly my first meeting with the white tiger and with the pandas, but actually I have no recollection at all of my first girl."

The giant pandas, gift of the People's Republic of China, have neverSee ANY DAY, D2, Col. 1 ANY DAY, From D1 been successfully bred here, though they have in a few other zoos. If you ask him if it might help for the pandas to be given a lot more space for their courtship, which can be a bit physical (this female panda was badly chewed up), he'd say that given his choice, he'd keep the pandas at the zoo's 3,000-acre reserve deep in Virginia, giving them l00 acres to court in.

"But of course they'd kill me, people would simply kill me, if I tried moving the pandas out of the zoo. You know those wonderful red pandas that live next door to the giant pandas. We have them coming out our ears, but it was not always so. It took study and observation to find exactly the conditions in which they breed.

"I remember calling the zoo at San Francisco, where they had bred some red pandas. I asked them how they did it and they said:

" 'Well, Ted, the first thing is you get a male and a female. Be sure about that because it won't work otherwise. Then the next thing is you get real lucky.'

"It's more than luck--still, luck helps. I remember the case of a gorilla, when gorilla births were rare. A keeper one day noticed the male gorilla dozing on his back in a state of arousal. The female was let in and she came over and sat on him and that was that. Fine baby. The male was astonished what had happened to him. You can write all the learned papers you want, but it helps if the female comes in and sits down at the right time and place.

"I have come to the conclusion that unlike humans, most animals will not breed if they don't like each other.

"Have you ever been kissed by an okapi?That is, a sort of striped African antelope. Their skin is the most wonderful thing to feel in the world. No, not like suede, but like the softest plush. And when one trusts you and comes up and gives you a big kiss--no, it is not at all like the rasp of a cow's tongue--it is very nice.

"I suppose--well, now you take Buffo marinus, that great toad. The toad is interesting; you have to admit there is something impressive about creatures who have been living on the earth a lot longer than we have. There's merit there. Still, I guess I can take toads or leave them alone.

"Zoos are now far into the breeding of animals and the problems are endless, to say nothing of the fact that there is so much to be learned. Who would have guessed, for example, that the red pandas won't breed nicely unless the mother has three nest boxes. She likes to move the babies around.

"Or you take the golden lion tamarins exquisite guzzy marmosets from South America , which have been rather a success here. It was a puzzle that the first ones bred all right in captivity, but then no later generations.

"Here was the trouble: The baby golden lions are born in pairs and as they grow they get quite heavy. It is absolutely important for the male to help, and as you might guess, the bonding of the pair is very strong. But then as the babies grow along and the second pair is born, your instinct is to remove the young ones so the pair can give all their attention to the new infants. Wrong. The children, as you might call them, must be around when the infants are born. There is so much work to be done that the children are needed to help out. Furthermore, the children need the experience of caring for the infants. Otherwise--if the older kids are removed and do not experience caring for the babies--when the young golden lions grow up and breed, the female does not know what to make of her baby and kills it--drops it or neglects it.

"Still, there comes a time the young goldens must be removed. Not too soon, because they need the experience of caring for the infants. But not too late, either, or the older male and older female will attack them. The old females are more vicious than the males."

Reed's worst experience at the zoo is tragically fresh in his mind. It was the day about 20 years ago on which a lion killed a little girl. She somehow got too close, and he dragged her body off, having cut off her head. The grandfather held the head. Somebody finally gave him a paper bag. It was ghastly beyond any experience Reed had known. Such a thing is unthinkable, yet it happened.

Usually, the chief worry is not about such a hideous accident, which simply never happens though it did happen, but about the keepers of the animals. It is hard for a keeper who has known a certain animal intimately for years to keep always in mind that the animal is wild, and does not think as an old human buddy thinks. There was a case elsewhere of a keeper of the Grevy zebras; the man was perfect with them, and there were the strongest bonds, the liveliest affection. Then one day the zebra kicked the keeper l8 feet across the paddock into a fence. If it had not been for the fence the keeper would still be sailing through the air. There never was any explanation for this. The zebra never misbehaved before or after.

The closest analogy for understanding such things, perhaps, is to think of a human boss who normally is pretty civilized, but who occasionally, say once a fortnight, goes haywire. Animals, fortunately, are more reliable, but nobody's perfect.

One of the things Reed is proudest of is his role, years ago, in accepting and promulgating the use of anesthetic darts that now, Reed says, are highly reliable. You can put an animal down for 20 minutes, give the medication or the examination, and the animal wakes and is good as new.

But formerly, with an animal like an antelope, you might as well write off the animal to begin with as to try to catch and restrain it.

"Before we had this wonderful tool--this extra arm of the veterinarian, you might call it--you were almost helpless. I was an assistant director and sat on a wall with the old director and we regarded an old lion. Something was wrong with him but what? You couldn't walk in there and take his temperature. The director said the old lion seemed to have either a headache or a hangover. We thought aspirin might be indicated, but who was going in there and stuff aspirin down his throat?

"I remember we thought a fresh-killed chicken might perk him up. But it did not. Then somebody said maybe a live chicken would get him moving, so a live chicken was put in. When we checked a bit later, the chicken was sitting on top of the lion's head. I guess the chicken thought that was about as safe a place as any. Had to close the lion house for three days because the chicken wouldn't come out. I don't think the lion liked his roosting up there, either. But nowadays, you'd give the anesthetic, make a careful diagnosis, give the best treatment, and chances are everything would be fine within a day or two. The nearly universal use of this anesthetic, far more refined now than in the old days, is something I'm very proud to have had a part in, though it means nothing to the people of Washington in particular, but it means something to animals."

Reed, after three hours, still had not begun to exhaust his store of anecdotes and had scarcely even begun to touch on a favorite passion, genetics. Years ago a committee or consortium of responsible zoo officials got together and announced it would not buy certain animals that faced extinction in the wild. This was years before legislation forbade such importations.

"And it was a hard thing. For example, you might know there were 20 orangutans for sale in Singapore. Well orangs are not native to Singapore; obviously they had been caught and brought there. But you felt sorry for them, and it was a temptation to say it was better to buy them and give them security and good vet treatments and so on than to leave them in terrible conditions in Singapore. But if you did this, other wild orangs would be caught and subjected to the same merciless process. So you had to stop, period.

"An animal might be legally protected in one country, but could be smuggled across borders to neighboring countries, which had no laws forbidding exportation. So legally you could import the animal, even if you knew it had been illegally taken to another country for sale. What we tried to do was dry up the market for this sort of thing. And we've had an effect, yet some of it still goes on.

"Sometimes we are falsely reassured about threatened animals. You take tigers--there are a number of them, they are not absolutely down to the wire, and they breed readily in captivity. But when you keep very careful records, and use your computers to examine the total tiger population, you may find that a large percentage of the total population has been drawn from relatively very few individual tigers. You recall that celebrated female tiger in New York. Her genes are everywhere by now.

"Even in a preserve in Nepal--you think, oh, good, we'll import a wild tiger from Asia. But the tigers live in what amounts to a zoo; they're wild tigers, all right, but the preserve may be surrounded by 50 miles of cultivated fields, and no tiger is going to get into that preserve. He'll be shot first, because the farmers understandably really do not like tigers.

"So the tigers of the preserve are breeding from a limited pool of tiger genes. Furthermore, a dominant male will keep other males from breeding at all. So even if you see plenty of wild tigers, you cannot assume the cubs encompass a wide assortment of tiger genes. It may be a very limited number of tiger genes being passed on.

"What does this do 20 generations down the track? It used to be said that with wild stock the breeding was so heterozygous that you could inbreed for five generations without encountering problems of too-close inbreeding.

"What we must do, and what we in fact do now, is examine the relationship of animals in various zoos. We might send a beautiful animal to be exhibited at some other zoo, some zoo where they will not breed with him. Because we do not want the stock of the world's zoo animals to become too restricted in their genetic material. This is something to think of. It is not just a question of a magnificent tiger, but of what genes he has to pass on; so you want to keep the widest assortment of genetical background alive in zoo tigers.

"And as for the problems--whew."

Suppose some breeding pair is prolific, and another pair is not. Do you want to stock every zoo in Christendom with the prolific strain, merely because you have them on hand and it's the easiest thing to do? Not necessarily. On the other hand, what do you do with surplus animals already overly represented in the gene pool? There are hardly any easy answers.

The record-keeping is endless. The commitments are long-term and costly. It does no great good to keep a pair or two of Pere David's deer, which soon become inbred. What is great (a project of the National Zoo) is a herd of deer maintained over many generations and forever, with close attention to the breeding, lest a few exceptionally vigorous individuals start dominating genetically the world's stock of this deer.

It would be easier if land and money and administrators and keepers were available everywhere and without stint. Even then, it would take intelligence and long-term commitment, long after the original novelty of the rare animal had worn off.

You understand that when Reed retires he'll keep his office there, will remain as consultant, but will talk and write widely and collect a few chips owed him.

"You take the harpy eagle from Guyana. Well, for a long time they've been ready to provide one for our zoo, but I think what it takes is going down there, and they say well, we'll have to go out in the bush, so you say fine, and hire a car and go out there. That's how you get your harpy eagle."

Reed is only 60. He said the idea for retiring was his own, since he wants to do these other things without the heavy burden of administration. His use of a walking stick lends him a new gravity somewhat at variance with his natural bounding manner.

"When I came to our zoo I was one of three on the technical staff. Our budget was less than a million. Now it is 10 million. I do not think I want to know what this amounts to in l950 dollars. More than 80 percent of it goes for salaries. Then there is feed and the utility bills. It doesn't leave much. The way it works everywhere, I guess, is that you start as one of three men and then they start adding bricks. You get more money, you get a bigger staff, and everything is fine and they keep adding bricks.

"The new man who follows me is going to inherit a lot of bricks."