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National Zoo is requiring advance visitor passes ‘indefinitely’

D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton has raised concerns about access to the online passes

A giant face mask adorns the head of a lion sculpture at the entrance of the Smithsonian National Zoo in May 2021. (Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post)
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The National Zoo in Washington will continue to require advance online passes for entry indefinitely, officials said Wednesday.

The popular site, on Connecticut Avenue in Northwest, introduced its system of online passes during the coronavirus pandemic as a way to manage visitor numbers. Similar action was taken at other museums and indoor spaces in the District, but many have been lifted as life has returned to a somewhat normal routine.

But Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), D.C.’s nonvoting delegate in Congress, raised concerns this week about the zoo’s passes and asked that officials reevaluate the process. Norton wrote in a letter to the zoo that the policy of advance online reservations “may be limiting access or deterring visits to the National Zoo, especially for people who cannot get online, whether because they do not have a computer or smartphone or are unable to use such devices.”

She also suggested the system could discourage visitors who want to go to the facility spontaneously, and she asked whether the passes — which are free and required for all guests, including children — were necessary.

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In an email Wednesday, zoo spokeswoman Annalisa Meyer wrote to The Washington Post that the pass policy “will remain in place indefinitely.”

Zoo director Brandie Smith told Norton in a letter — a copy of which was sent to The Post — that the advance passes allow the facility to deal with “visitors’ needs and volume” better, including in relation to staffing.

Smith wrote that after the reservation system was introduced during the pandemic, officials recognized the “value visitor passes can bring to our Zoo and local community as they enable us to observe and manage visitor capacity, reduce local traffic congestion and most importantly, provide for an overall better and safer visit to the Zoo.”

She said that the zoo had observed only “minimal issues or concerns raised by visitors about passes on a day of visit” and that the zoo applied “best practices” from other Smithsonian facilities that also use entry passes.

The zoo passes can be reserved up to four weeks in advance. A limited number of same-day passes are available daily at the zoo’s pedestrian entrances for those unable to reserve passes online. Visitors also can obtain passes on their mobile device on the day of their visit.

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Still, Norton said in a phone call Wednesday that she wasn’t fully satisfied with the zoo’s response and would raise the issue with residents at an upcoming town hall.

Though the zoo may not be receiving many complaints about the passes, Norton said she has “gotten a lot of comments.”

“There’s concern that there’s difficulty in gaining access,” she said. “I want to give residents a chance to give me more feedback on whether they feel inconvenienced.”