Starting in 2016, the National Zoo’s grounds will be open for three fewer hours per day. Beyond not having as many chances to see the animals, the change means people who use the Zoo to walk and exercise early in the morning or late in the afternoon won’t be able to anymore.

Photo by m01229 on Flickr.

Year-round, the Zoo will open two hours later and close one hour earlier than it does now. That means it will open at 8 am instead of 6, and close at 5 pm in winter and 7 pm the rest of the year rather than the current 6 pm in winter and 8 pm otherwise. The later opening will allow the animal house buildings to open at 9 am, one hour earlier each day than they are now.

The changed hours are the equivalent of the Zoo shutting its doors 7.5 days a month compared to the current winter schedule.

There’s more to the Zoo than animals in buildings. When it’s open, residents walk through the grounds for fitness or relaxation before and after work or school. The Zoo grounds provide a direct east-west connection, especially for pedestrians. Also, a section of the Rock Creek Trail runs though the Zoo.

In an email to members earlier this month, the Zoo cited visitor and animal safety as the primary reason for this change, particularly when it gets dark on shorter fall and winter days. Not having the public on the grounds will also allow Zoo staff and vendors “to move freely around the park during early morning hours.”

What’s unclear, however, is the degree to which new safety measures are actually needed.

The Zoo is great in the early morning and late afternoon

Congress chartered the Zoo for “the advancement of science and the instruction and recreation of the people,” and some of its wonderful sights and sounds only happen outside during early morning hours. Visitors can watch the Zoo staff introduce new orangutans to the overhead “O Line” when there aren’t many people around, or hear sea lions bark or lions roar.

Nearby resident and Zoo member, Sheila Harrington, describes the value for her family of accessing the grounds prior to the Zoo’s planned 8 am opening.

I’ve been walking in the Zoo early in the morning, before starting work, often 2-3 times a week (unless it’s freezing or pouring), for decades. My husband used to visit the gibbons with each of our babies in a Snugli, and bonded with the mother gibbons similarly burdened. When the children were in strollers they rode along on my walks—up and down those hills pushing a stroller is a great workout. It’s quiet, mostly without vehicles, and the animals are lively and fascinating. Sometimes I stop to sketch. The Zoo staff are usually working on some interesting tasks. Opening at 8 am would be too late because I need to get to work!

The Zoo is a useful travel route across Rock Creek

The paths and roads that the Zoo maintains also fulfill transportation needs, intended or not. The Zoo’s 163 acres are directly adjacent to Rock Creek Park, an area with somewhat limited routes through the parkland.

When the Zoo closes its grounds in the evening, there are two big negative impacts to transportation. First, four Zoo entrance gates close across walking paths and roads that normally allow direct east-west (or west-east) routes into and through the Zoo for pedestrians, cyclists and drivers (yellow marks on the map below). Second, two gates close at the two ends of the north-south Rock Creek Trail within Zoo boundaries (green marks).

The yellow dots are entrances to east-west paths that cut through the Zoo, and the green dots are entrances to those that run north-south. Base image from Google Maps, with labels from the author.

Whether the four Zoo entrance gates are open affects anyone who wants to travel across the Zoo and Rock Creek at this point. Pedestrians can walk just 0.8 miles to get from the Harvard Street NW bridge through the Zoo to Connecticut Avenue NW. But the walk doubles to 1.5-1.6 miles when the Zoo is closed when they have to walk around to Porter Street NW or Calvert Street NW. The distance similarly doubles for cyclists and drivers when they have to use Calvert or Porter instead of North Road.

When the two trail gates close, pedestrians and cyclists instead need to traverse the Beach Drive tunnel on a narrow sidewalk. (This area will be widened in late 2016 and early 2017 by planned NPS construction.) DDOT, NPS and the Zoo explored closing Rock Creek Trail at night during the Rock Creek Park Multi-Use Trail Environmental Assessment. Trail users want to see it open 24/7, but Zoo insists this is infeasible “in order to maintain … accreditation by the American Zoological and Aquarium Association (AZA).”

The November Project DC, a “just show up” fitness group, did its Friday

6:30 am exercises on the Zoo grounds. Photo by tusabeslo on Flickr.

Safety issues? What safety issues?

Zoo users are both surprised and disappointed by the change to fewer open hours. They’re also still unsure of what, exactly, the safety issue is because the Zoo did not release the crime or safety data used to support its decision or identify any potential alternatives.

Media coverage on crime at or near the National Zoo has focused on incidents that occurred on three separate Easter Monday events at the Zoo. A shooting in 2000, stabbing in 2011 and shooting in 2014 all occurred in late afternoon between 4 and 6 pm. These events were unfortunate, but they were isolated, and they happened in late April when even the new Zoo hours would mean it’d be open until 7.

Zoo management has historically been great about keeping up a dialog with members, visitors and nearby neighborhoods on an array of issues. But the Zoo hasn’t shared any details with the public regarding this decision. Even the announcement only went to members by email and on the public website, not appearing on any of the Zoo’s active social media accounts.

Warren Gorlick, a nearby resident, said he wants to know the exact safety concerns that warrant the hours changes.

There is not much we know, however, because the [letter] … was carefully worded to provide almost no details as to the underlying rationale. It simply mentioned “safety” issues repeatedly, without stating what they were or whether the zoo had considered methods other than restricting public access to the zoo. We have to wonder what is causing this sudden concern about “safety” right now that would result in such a major cutback in public access to this space.

Can Zoo users prompt a change of course?

Zoo users want to understand whether closing the Zoo is the best solution to keep visitors, staff and animals safe, but the Zoo’s email is correct in saying the change will “frustrate” some patrons. The closure of Zoo grounds three hours a day represents a significant change in public access to the animals and walking trails. The plan to add one hour of animal house access during hours when the grounds were open anyway doesn’t outweigh the overall reduction to grounds access.

What remains to be seen is whether the Zoo will share details behind the safety concerns. There may be other options through sponsorships to support hiring more security staff, partnerships with other law enforcement agencies or even establishing community watch groups. Without more information, we only see the locked gates in the name of keeping visitors safely on the outside.

Photo by Tim Herrick on Flickr.

The Woodley Park Community Association will host Dennis Kelly, the Zoo’s director, at its upcoming meeting for a discussion of the Zoo operating hours changes. The meeting is open to the public and will be held on Wednesday, December 2, 2015 at 7:30 pm at Stanford University in the Washington Building (2661 Connecticut Ave NW).