Photo by Ron Cogswell on Flickr.

The National Zoo is changing its hours because of safety concerns, but Zoo users aren’t so sure that’s necessary. The Zoo director clarified Friday that his concerns aren’t about crime or animal safety; what he’s really worried about are people jogging and running into Zoo maintenance vehicles.

A November 6th email from Lyn Mento, the executive director of Friends of the National Zoo (which handles most of the Zoo’s communications to members), said the shorter hours would “protect and safeguard our visitors and animals, especially when it gets dark earlier in the fall and winter.”

But it’s unclear what, exactly, is threatening animals’ health and welfare. In fact, when it comes to actually explaining the safety concerns mentioned in the email, the the only thing Zoo director Dennis Kelly has clarified is that joggers literally run into the Zoo maintenance vehicles and that happens more when it’s dark. Here’s what he recently told the Washington Post:

“We’ve had for some time, going back years, increasing concern about safety and security,” Kelly said. “We’ve observed many near misses for walkers and joggers, particularly in the dark. We’ve had joggers with headphones bumping into parked vehicles.”

Rather than blaming visitors for the problem, the Zoo could let them help solve it

It seems like the Zoo is saying that its drivers shouldn’t have to act safely and responsibly.

The Post article, noticeably, does not specifically focus on vehicles running into joggers and pedestrians, and seems to only mention people running into vehicles. Rather than assembling a plan for keeping people safe— posting signs that communicate safety concerns, installing more lighting, marking pathways for vehicles and people, or making vehicles more visible, for example— the Zoo director’s statement positions joggers and pedestrians as the absolute cause of closing the Zoo for three extra hours everyday.

The focus on blame and consequences leaves the Zoo’s visitors locked out from a key decision. The analysis that informed Kelly and his staff is not available for member or public review, and that isn’t likely to change before the Zoo’s hours do.

There are more ways to fix safety issues than to just close a place down

There are lots of public venues where people driving vehicles need to account for people walking around. The National Park Service maintains the National Mall and other parkland using vehicles, mostly while the parkland is in use. Amusement parks stay open long hours during the summer, while resupplying concessions, picking up trash and making repairs.

The Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which accredits the National Zoo, operates a Safety Committee “for gathering and disseminating best practices in safety within zoos and aquariums.” This committee could serve as a resource for examining the full range of options to include best practices and professional training. The National Zoo’s director currently serves as an adviser to the committee, and a Fire Protection Engineer from the Zoo who serves as a member.

The Zoo could work with the committee to find ways to make its paths safer without just closing them.

The Zoo didn’t give the public much notice on this change, which isn’t a first

The decision appears to be sudden and based on an issue that had not previously been communicated to stakeholders in member newsletters, Congressional testimony or media interviews. Yet, the Zoo says this has been based on a longstanding problem.

Last summer, the Zoo shocked patrons and received national press coverage for closing its beloved Invertebrate Exhibit on six days’ notice. Kelly explained the brief transition time as the only way to maintain “our standard of quality” in the exhibit. Negative comments and feedback dominated social media and press coverage. Here’s an example from Wired magazine:

Having the nation’s zoo suddenly and with little public warning close a long-standing exhibit is unprecedented. Public comments on the Museum’s Facebook page are overwhelmingly shocked and negative, including some from volunteers that work at the Zoo.

By waiting until the last minute to announce changes that the public won’t like, is the Zoo limiting public discussion and criticism? I have no way of actually knowing, but I’ll say that it certainly seems that way.

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).

Mitch Wander first arrived in Washington, DC over 30 years ago as a US House of Representatives page while in high school. An avid promoter of DC living, Mitch has lived in wards 1, 2, 3, and 6. He and his wife are proud DC Public School parents. He serves as an officer in the US Army Reserve.