Current entrance to the National Zoo by Quaedell licensed under Creative Commons.

The Smithsonian has plans to install security checkpoints at the National Zoo and reduce the number of pedestrian entrances from 13 to three, according to reporting by the Washington Business Journal. Adding more barriers will cut the Zoo off from the rest of the park and community. It shouldn't add more security simply because other Smithsonian buildings have done so.

One of the great things about the National Zoo is that it is integrated into Rock Creek Park and the Woodley Park and Adams Morgan neighborhoods. Visitors can stroll freely in and out, and runners can pass through the Zoo property during open hours. The proposed security changes would ruin this experience and make the Zoo a less inviting and less vibrant place. It could also make access more difficult for people who don't have identification or those who are experiencing homelessness.

The Smithsonian’s proposal for increased security at the National Zoo is currently on the agenda for the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) meeting on July 12. Sign our petition if you agree that this is a bad idea.

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The proposal includes installing expanded fencing around the Zoo, as well as three security checkpoints. The Smithsonian document describes the checkpoints as:

These security checkpoints would consist of permanent pavilions, each with several controlled guard posts, security screening magnetometers and areas for bag searches comparable to the security provided at Smithsonian museums on the National Mall.

The security checkpoints would be located at the upper entrance on Connecticut Avenue, the bus drop-off lot, and the lower entrance near Rock Creek Parkway. A fourth entrance and checkpoint would be added later to serve the Zoo’s new parking garage when that project is complete.

Illustration of a potential security checkpoint at the Zoo’s Connecticut Avenue Entrance. Image by Smithsonian proposal from NCPC website.

In its proposal, the Smithsonian says that bag checks and visitor screens would only be used on “high visitation days.” But the issue with installing permanent infrastructure for these screens is that it can create pressure to increase screening on other days.

This is an example of what people call the “one-way ratchet” theory: security measures only get increased, and are never decreased. We have seen an example of this recently with airport security.

After the 2001 shoe bomber attempt, the TSA began requiring flyers to remove their shoes during screening. In 2006, the TSA banned liquids over 3.4 ounces and required flyers to put their liquids in a separate bag for screening.

Most recently, the TSA has been asking passengers to remove food from their bags during screenings. These requirements have been implemented with little thought as to their effectiveness, and have only been relaxed for travelers who sign up for the TSA Precheck program and submit to a background check and fingerprinting.

Perhaps the Zoo initially will only have screening on the highest visitation days. After a few years, they could decide to decide to expand screening to the highest visitation months. It is not hard to imagine that after some time, every visitor to the Zoo could be subjected to screening.

At that point, the Zoo will be reduced to yet another formerly public place in DC where we are required to stand in lines and submit to security screening. In recent years, museums on the National Mall have implemented full security screening, and Arlington Cemetery added full security screening in 2016.

The Zoo has failed to make the case that these security measures are necessary or justified. The study the Zoo commissioned in 2015 does not appear to be available online.

In comments to WAMU, a Zoo spokesperson admitted that the plan for increased security screening was simply doing what other venues have already done: “What we are doing is catching up to what everybody else has been doing,” said Pamela Baker-Masson, the Zoo’s Associate Director of Communications, Exhibits, and Planning.

The reaction on Twitter to the news about more security theater at the Zoo was overwhelmingly in the “against” column. Several people spoke up about how the security would affect the integration of the Zoo with the neighborhood:

Others lamented the proliferation of increased security around DC:

And others questioned the financial decision-making:

Let’s take a stand against these unnecessary increases in security screening. You can submit comments for the upcoming NCPC meeting here:

Include the following information with your comments:

Your name and contact info
Project information

  • Project: National Zoological Park Supplemental Perimeter Fencing
  • NCPC File Number: 7986
  • Agency: Smithsonian Institution

You can also sign our petition, which we will deliver before the deadline.

Sign the petition!

Matt Dickens is a public transportation policy researcher and advocate with a passion for land use, transit, and smart growth issues. He commutes by bus and bike and loves exploring the District. Matt and his family live in Bloomingdale, DC. The opinions expressed in his posts are Matt's own and do not represent the opinions of his employer.