National Zoo / Wild Animal Care in U.S.

Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English. I’m Faith Lapidus.

And I’m Steve Ember. The third Monday in February is a national holiday, Presidents' Day. That means most children get the day off from school. And that means last Monday a lot of parents probably heard this question:

"Can we go to the zoo? Huh, can we? Can we please?!"

Well, today WE go to the zoo, the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., for a look at the subject of wild-animal care in the United States.

The population at the Smithsonian National Zoological Park in the nation’s capital has grown recently. Four baby cheetahs are among the newcomers. Cheetahs are big African cats known for their speed. They have yellow fur and dark spots.

These are the first cheetahs born in the one-hundred-fifteen-year history of the National Zoo. A four-year-old cheetah named Tumai gave birth to the cubs on November twenty-third. Their father, Amadi, died in December from kidney disease.

The baby cheetahs are two males and two females. Each weighed less than two kilograms at birth. Their caretakers needed a way to be sure which cheetah is which. So they cut a small amount of fur from a different place on each one.

The young cheetahs have begun eating meat. But they are also still nursing from their mother.

When they are big enough, the cheetahs will join other big cats in the African Savanna at the National Zoo. The savanna is a grassy area designed to copy conditions in the wild.

Three Sumatran tigers were born at the zoo in May of two thousand four. These three males now weigh about forty-five kilograms each.

Another young animal growing quickly at the National Zoo is a male elephant named Kandula. He weighed about one hundred forty-seven kilograms at birth.

His mother is Shanthi. Shanthi is among the last zoo elephants born in the wild. The children of Sri Lanka gave her to the National Zoo as a gift almost thirty years ago.

Kandula is a little more than three years old. He was born in November of two thousand one.

Many people come to the National Zoo to see Kandula. Crowds also gather to see the two giant pandas from China. Tian Tian is the male and Mei Xiang is the female.

These big, furry black-and-white creatures roll around in the grass. They play. They climb trees. They eat bamboo. All they watch the people watching them.

The zoo is paying to have the pandas on loan from China for ten years. They arrived in two thousand to replace two pandas that died.

Giant pandas come from the mountains of central China. They are very rare. A number of pandas have been born in China recently. If Tian Tian and Mei Xiang have a baby, it would also be an important addition.

The National Zoo has about three thousand animals. They represent more than four hundred species. They live on sixty-six hectares of land in Washington, D.C.

People do not have to pay to enter the National Zoo. Most of its money is from the federal government. Supporters known as "Friends of the National Zoo" also give money.

Congress created the zoo in eighteen eighty-nine. The National Zoo is part of the Smithsonian Institution. The Smithsonian operates a large system of museums.

Millions of people visit the National Zoo in Washington. Over the years, it has been praised as one of the best in the United States.

But in two thousand three, Congress ordered an investigation of the zoo after several animals died. An independent committee from the National Academy of Sciences examined records at the zoo. The committee reported that most of the animals whose records it studied received satisfactory care.

However, the committee also said that the zoo must improve its training of employees. In addition, it reported that aging equipment and structures must be repaired or replaced.

Zoo director Lucy Spelman resigned in February of two thousand four.

Last month, a report from the National Research Council noted some improvements at the National Zoo over the last year. But it said more work is needed.

America’s first zoo opened in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in eighteen fifty-nine. Each year about fifty million people visit zoos in the United States.

In the past, zoos kept animals in small cages. There was nothing but the animal, its food and its waste.

The Bronx Zoo in New York City led the way to better conditions. It designed exhibits to provide more freedom. The idea to create settings more like nature spread to other zoos.

One of the leading American zoos is in San Diego, California. The San Diego Zoological Society operates the zoo. It also operates the San Diego Wild Animal Park.

More than two thousand animals live on about eight hundred hectares at the Wild Animal Park. Visitors learn about efforts to save and protect rare animals like the California condor. This bird measures three meters across with its wings spread.

In nineteen eighty-seven, researchers captured the last known California condors in the wild to put them into breeding programs. Today the population of California condors has grown to two hundred forty-five. That was the number as of last month. The San Diego Wild Animal Park raised almost half of them.

Many of the condors have been released into the wild. They live not just in California but also in parts of Arizona and Mexico.

Some people believe it is cruel to keep animals in zoos. They say most of the animals in zoos are not endangered. So they question the need for programs to breed these animals in captivity. Critics argue that animals can suffer in zoos.

And, in some cases, zoos agree. A number of American zoos have stopped showing elephants. These huge animals need lots of space, a mild climate and other elephants to live with.

Wanda and Winky are two Asian elephants that have lived for years at the Detroit Zoo in Michigan. Wanda is about forty-five years old. She has arthritis. Her joints hurt when she moves. Winky is over fifty. She has foot problems.

The zoo director, Ron Kagan, decided that half a hectare of living space was much too small for them. He also decided that winters in Detroit are too cold for elephants. So zoo officials prepared to move Wanda and Winky to a wild animal refuge in California.

But problems developed with that plan. The American Zoo and Aquarium Association said the elephants would have go to the zoo in Columbus, Ohio. There would be less distance to travel. And the group said Wanda and Winky would receive excellent care at one of the largest elephant exhibits of any American zoo.

But people in Detroit who care about Wanda and Winky protested. They argued that Columbus also has cold winters and that space at the zoo was also limited.

In the end, an examination of Wanda settled the issue. Doctors found a virus. This virus does not harm Wanda, but it could have killed young elephants at the Columbus Zoo. So officials there said no to the move.

Now the American Zoo and Aquarium Association says Wanda and Winky can move to California, as soon as the weather permits. Their retirement home will be a refuge east of San Francisco. The Performing Animal Welfare Society has more than forty hectares of land for elephants to do whatever they like to do.

So it appears that the story of Wanda and Winky will have a happy ending, after all.

Our program was written by Jerilyn Watson and produced by Caty Weaver. I’m Steve Ember.

And I’m Faith Lapidus. Join us again next week for THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English.