National Zoo Review Date of Visit: July 19, 2015 As my parents love history and going to museums, I have been to Washington D.C. on quite a few family trips and have visited the National Zoo several times. I used to think it was mostly an average to subpar zoo but on my visit in 2015 I was pleased with the amount of high quality immersion exhibits that have emerged at the zoo. It has a beautiful location on a hill in a park and it is divided into lower and upper paths. There’s an awkward mixture between old-school taxidermic buildings with a few outdoor yards and immersive complexes with a variety of often rare animals in naturalistic habitats. Excellent Asia Trail- One of the very best immersive complexes at any zoo in the country and I could very easily be in my top five. It starts out with the best sloth bear exhibit in the nation. Instead of the usual grottoes, they have a spacious habitat with tons of vegetation, ample vegetation and rocks, plenty of enrichment and hiding opportunities and a naturalistic environment. The sloth bears can make so many choices in this habitat and it it’s designed to let them act as they please. This is what a bear exhibit should be and the design and detail is flawless. Up next is a spacious netted clouded leopard habitat. The exhibit is filled with trees, rocks and logs for climbing and actually replicates the environment of the cats. I’ve seen so many ridiculously small cat exhibits that were clearly afterthoughts that seeing this one is a huge treat. I’m unsure if I’d say this one or the one in Nashville is the best clouded leopard exhibit I’ve seen. Up next is by far the largest fishing cat exhibit I’ve ever seen and it is in similar style to the clouded leopard one. Plenty of branches allow the cats to climb and rest and vegetation provides plenty of hiding opportunities. A pool on the floor is quite nice and an be viewed through glass. A huge family of Asian small-clawed otters live in a highly immersive habitat. The amount of land area found for the otters is impressive and the stream that runs through it is quite nice. Realistic trees, rockwork and grass create an ideal environment and it is definitely state-of-the-art. Up next is a brilliant red panda exhibit with a great amount of vertical space for them to climb and walk on. The mock rock here is some of the very best I have seen and immerses visitors and the animals into the habitat of the red pandas. Japanese salamanders live in an excellent terrarium that gives more thought than usual ones. The crown jewel of the complex is the best giant panda exhibit around. Multiple expansive yards filled with bamboo, trees, rocks, elevation and varied terrain blow every other panda exhibit I’ve seen out of the water. It really looks as if you just stumble upon a giant panda sitting and munching in a bamboo forest in China. The amount of enrichments is perfect as well and the habitats are a perfect vehicle for them to act like pandas. As always, the indoor rooms aren’t as impressive but are still quite strong. The only flaw of Asia Trail is its lack of species and I’d love for it to be expanded with Amur tigers, snow leopards, Indian rhinoceroses, macaques, langurs, Bactrian camels, wild horses, Malayan tapirs, gaurs and/or babirusas. An absolutely brilliant and practically flawless section of the zoo. Elephant Trails- If you went to the National Zoo before 2010 you know the Elephant House used to be an absolutely dreadful region of the zoo housing Asian elephants, giraffes, Indian rhinoceros, Nile hippos, pygmy hippos and capybaras. Fortunately the space is now one of the most naturalistic habitats for elephants in the country. A really cool feature of this exhibit is that the elephants can be viewed from a bridge that goes over their habitat among other viewing opportunities. The 2 acre exhibit is covered with grass, has great pools and ample enrichment opportunities and the backdrops are quite well done. It is by far the best Asian elephant exhibit I’ve seen in the U.S. and the second best in the world (after Dublin’s brilliant Kaziranga Forest Trail.) A very good exhibit and one of the few megafauna at the National Zoo who gets a modern exhibit. American Trail- Like Asia Trail focuses on quality over quantity. Beavers live in a fairly spacious habitat that has a brilliant designed lodge and huge pond. The land area is filled with vegetation and hiding opportunities and a stream leads into the pond. Second best beaver exhibit I’ve ever seen (I think Cleveland may still be the best and based on the pictures Minnesota looks quite brilliant.) River otters live in a similar large immersive habitat with underwater viewing and plenty of land area. The biggest disappointment of the complex is gray wolves live in a hillside shaded habitat that is not as large or impressive as world-class wolf exhibits at other zoos. Bald eagles live in an excellent aviary that’s one of the best of its kind. America Trail continues with brilliant modern exhibits for pinnipeds. Sea lions and seals live in two rocky immersive habitats with crystal clear water and plenty of space to swim. Pelicans can be found on the land area and are kept in by a net. The rocky backdrops provide plenty of crevices the sea lions can use as enrichments and the pool is deep so they can dive. The underwater viewing is amazing and it really looks like they’re swimming around in a Pacific cove. These are the best pinniped exhibits I’ve ever seen (although that will change when I go to Saint Louis in May) and are of extremely high quality. Overall American Trail is an excellent exhibit and like Asia Trail has greatly raised the quality of this zoo. Cheetah Conservation Station- Borderline average but elevated by the state-of-the-art cheetah yard. The expansive grassy habitat has tons of tall grass and kopjes for the cheetahs to use as enrichments and provide great immersion. A few trees provide shade but most of the habitat is quite open. A zebra exhibit is quite disappointing and simply a basic padlock that is average at best. Sitatungas, red river hogs and hornbills live together in an open grassy yard with lots of space and dama gazelles and scimitar-horned oryx live in a nice grassy yard but nothing unusual. Maned wolfs destroy the cohesive African theme but at least they have an excellent lush exhibit with plenty of places for them to hide. Lemur Island- A lush island for the primates complex with a waterfall. Quite beautiful. Average Small Mammal House- Amazing collection in average standard exhibits, most of them all-indoor. Represented species include meerkats, sand cats, golden lion tamarins, banded mongoose, bettongs, howler monkeys, fennec foxes, ferrets, hedgehogs, red ruffed lemurs, hyraxes, skunks, elephant shrews, agoutis, naked mole rats, marmosets, armadillos, saki monkeys, prehensile-tailed porcupines, tamanduas, hornbills and sloths. Reptile Discovery Center- Slightly outdated facility which houses species such as rock pythons, Cuban crocodiles, pitvipers, gila monsters, anacondas, tree pythons, king cobras, golden frogs, tortoises and geckos. The stars are the Komodo dragons who have an average outside habitat. The best exhibits are for the crocodilians and American alligators, Chinese alligators and rare gharials have decent outdoor exhibits with large pools. Amazonia- This indoor rainforest does an excellent job at delivering a strong conservation message but is weakened by not being as impressive in size, scope and number of species as other rainforest buildings. The fish, amphibians and reptiles get excellent terrariums but the indoor rainforest room is fairly small and only houses birds and titi monkeys. Gibbon Ridge- Netted gibbon and siamang habitats that have been done much better by countless other zoos. Poor Big Cats- A fairly weak region that is dominated by concrete walls between levels. Two grottoes house tigers while one has lions. One would argue that these are much larger than other grottoes and at least have a good amount of vegetation but that doesn’t make them good exhibits. Also, the visitors do not get close to the cats by any means and there is not enough enrichment and minimal naturalism in these exhibits. Preswalzki’s Wild Horse- Generic and barren even for a hoofstock yard. I would much prefer to see them in naturalistic habitats in Asia Trail. Bison- Easily the smallest bison exhibit I have seen. America’s national mammal should be in expansive grasslands with tons of space to roam, not in a small grassy yard with a simple shade structure in the middle. Think Tank- I know it won the AZA award and the O-Line is great but quite disappointing in terms of quality. I appreciate the fact it tries to educate people on the conservation and behavior of orangs but the indoor rooms have lots of tile while the outdoor yards are completely generic. Andean Bear- Your average bear grotto that has some enrichments and natural substrate but still is what it is. Great Ape House- An absolute disgrace and possibly the worst great apes house in the country. Inside it looks like an old steel building with depressing gray hard walls for the gorillas and orangutans lacking enough enrichments. It’s all concrete. Outside the orangutan yard is quite small while the gorilla one is averaged size but lacks vegetation and enough enrichments. It looks like gorillas have invaded a mediocre play park rather than the Congo. The National Zoo is one of the most mixed zoos I have seen in terms of quality since the highs are very high and the lows are very low. A lot of endangered species and animals rarely found in America’s zoos are present but quite a few superstars are nowhere to be found or live in subpar habitats. In the future and with more renovations on line with the Asia and American Trails, this zoo could possibly be a top 12 zoo but now I would put it somewhere between 15 and 22 on the scale of best American zoos.