On Sunday, November 17, I said goodbye to a giant panda who has been a major part of my life for the past four years. Bei Bei, along with one of his beloved keepers and a veterinarian, departed two days later for China aboard a personalized FedEx flight to Chengdu. I have attempted to write this story several times, and each time the pain of his departure was too much to allow me to focus. I still write this through tears, which might sound silly to many, but Bei Bei is a very special bear. He has lived up to his name, which means “precious treasure” in Mandarin—he’s a local, national, and worldwide treasure for sure. And most importantly, he’s an incredible ambassador for his species.
In 2014, when I accepted a job in the DC area, one of the perks of relocating from Boston was living close to the giant pandas at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo. I had followed the birth and first year of Bao Bao remotely, and she captured my heart immediately upon arriving in DC. (Even when I was in town for my job interview, I rushed to the zoo to catch a glimpse of the celebrity before I had to catch my flight. I saw only her fuzzy legs but promised her I would return soon.) Upon my permanent arrival to the city, Bao Bao was a spunky, independent, adorable ball of fluff. She entertained her fans with her acroBAOtics and sass, tumbling around her yard, tormenting the flora. As a newcomer I knew few people in the area, so a trip to the zoo to visit the silly Miss Bao Bao always cheered me up.
A year later, Bei Bei entered the world on August 22. The event made international news; he was an instant celebrity. I viewed the birth* live on the zoo’s panda cam and followed him and his mother almost daily as I awaited the day he would be on exhibit. (I am forever grateful to the zoo for providing this 24/7 cam for people all over the globe to observe the fascinating mother-baby interaction.) Bei Bei was named a month after his birth by then–First Lady Michelle Obama and China’s counterpart, Peng Liyuan. The celebrity finally made his public debut on January 16, 2016, and as expected the Giant Panda House was swarming with visitors dying to get their first look at the fuzzy baby.
Bei Bei was an endless source of entertainment. From watching him learn to climb trees and tumble down the hill, to flashing his signature toothy grin while sleeping, almost everything he did was adorable. I’m embarrassed to admit how many photos and panda cam screenshots I’ve taken of this bear. When I was having a stressful day, or just looking for some entertainment over my lunch break, I would tune in to watch the panda cam; I would immediately feel a sense of calm and smile. Since his departure I have combed through the past four years of memories, and it has brought many smiles and tears.
In the spirit of giving thanks this week, I am thankful to this bear for changing my life.
As soon as Bei Bei made his debut, I became a regular visitor and then a member of the Friends of the National Zoo. As I made frequent weekend visits to the zoo, I naturally fell in love with many of the other animals and began supporting several different conservation efforts. Now, not only am I a giant panda lover, I can call myself a zoo supporter. I thank Bei Bei for introducing me to his wonderful neighbors. Of course, if I hadn’t become a fan of the zoo, I would not have started this blog with the determination to tell many stories about the amazing people and animals that have changed the field.
My first visit with Bei Bei in 2016. He captured my heart immediately.
Bei Bei also introduced me to wonderful people who have enriched my life in so many ways. I now have a group of friends (the Zoo Crew) that I cannot wait to meet at our “happy place” nearly every weekend. I also always anticipate the amazing photos of DC Zoo Walks to make my entire week much brighter. Sandy Gertsley’s videos capture Bei Bei’s life in such memorable ways. The humor of Marcelo Pacheco, the mastermind of the Famous Babies Club on Twitter (Bei Bei is naturally president of the club) keeps me laughing constantly. (Marcelo and his wife, who reside in Chile, are two of the most charming people, and I’m so fortunate to call them my good friends.) BooBoo Panda’s super-creative and hilarious videos have also provided comic relief. It’s amazing how many fun, kind, creative people I have met over the past four years.
I also give thanks to Mei Xiang and Tian Tian for producing three wonderful cubs for the District and for China. The city’s first panda couple (Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing) who arrived in 1972** never had a surviving cub, so what Mei and Tian have given us is truly a miracle, thanks also in part to the amazing work and care of the veterinarians and panda keepers. We need to continue to show Mei and Tian our love, even though the absence of Bei Bei has left an emptiness in the panda yards. We don’t know how much longer we have to enjoy Mama and Papa (the zoo’s contract with China will be up for negotiation at the end of 2020), so I urge everyone to take advantage of these amazing bears while they’re here. We are so incredibly fortunate to have them in DC.
On a larger scale, I also urge all of the Bei Bei fans to continue to support the National Zoo. You might be tempted not to renew your membership since the celebrity bear is no longer here, but the zoo needs us. The gorillas need a new outdoor climbing structure, the bird house under construction still isn’t yet fully funded, and several of the buildings are becoming outdated. For the benefit of the animals, please continue your FONZ membership and support the zoo’s endeavors. I also want to continue to see all of your smiling faces when I visit!
So, thank you, adorable, happy, fuzzbutt bear for enriching my life, for leading me to other amazing people at a time I needed to find my place in the city, and for creating a lifetime of memories. I look forward to following you in the next chapter of your life and hope that the future is full of the next generation of Bei Beis. You are a precious treasure. Thank you, Bei Bei.
Some favorite photos I’ve taken of Bei Bei over the past four years:
*There were actually two births, but Bei Bei’s twin, the smaller of the two, died four days later.
**In 1972 my father completed his U.S. Navy training in Bethesda, Md. I would love to think he made a trip to the zoo to visit the new arrivals!
“Ambika! I remember visiting her as a young girl!” an Elephant House patron exclaimed to keeper Kayleigh Sullivan. Kayleigh, smiling, said that she hears that frequently from longtime DC residents. Ambika is certainly a city treasure—at 71 she is the third oldest Asian elephant in North America. (The record for longevity of an Asian elephant in captivity is 86 years.) She has been a DC resident since the Kennedy administration!
Born around 1948 in the wild, she was captured in India’s Coorg Forest when she was about eight years old. After her capture, she worked as a logging elephant, carrying gigantic felled trees through the forest with her trunk for two years before she was gifted to the National Zoo.
It is unclear as to how Ambika was the lucky elephant chosen to be rescued from brutal logging work, but after a 47-day journey on the S.S. Steel Architect, she arrived in the United States on April 14, 1961 (a few months after the arrival of celebrity white tiger Mohini). She was presented as a gift from the children of India and the Maharaja of Mysore to the children of America. At the time of her arrival she was about nine years old, 9 1/2 feet tall, and 2,800 pounds.
Before settling into her new home, however, Ambika toured the United States through the Share Your Birthday Foundation of Philadelphia, making appearances at schools and playgrounds to promote international goodwill among children. After her tour, Ambika (meaning “gift from heaven”) was ceremoniously presented to the National Zoo on January 5, 1962. She settled in nicely with another young female Indian elephant named Shanti (not the current Shanthi). The zoo also housed a feisty female African elephant named Nancy and a male African forest elephant named Dzimbo.
When Ambika arrived in DC, it was believed that she was pregnant. She had been bred in India shortly before leaving the country, so local DC newspapers kept the locals apprised as electrocardiogram tests (to detect a fetal heartbeat) were administered by Georgetown University. In late 1962 the word started to spread—not pregnant. Zoo officials were bummed by the news. A birth would have been only the third elephant to be born in the U.S. in the last 44 years.
Ambika is a very well-mannered and friendly lady. She often sports a smile. She is the peacemaker of the herd, making sure that everyone gets along. Her keepers used to wade into the pool with her to give her baths. They used to ride on her back. They used to ride her in the pool! One keeper would even lie down on the ground in Ambika’s path to demonstrate the trust they have developed with her. Today, her keepers follow protected contact regulations, meaning a barrier separates them and the elephants at all times. She is also known for her fun sense of humor—often silently sneaking up on her keepers, earning her the nickname “Sneaky Biki.” Keeper Kayleigh notes that another quirk is she likes to flap her ears against your face when you’re working with her. “She gives us her silly smile as she does it.”
Ambika—with her distinctive pink trunk, her social nature, her particular habits, and her signature smile—is truly a gift. —Cindy Han, Zoogoer magazine
Ambika’s life at the National Zoo had been pretty stable, that is, until 1976 when her best friend Shanti passed away at the age of 32. Just a few weeks later, the year-old and current resident Shanthi arrived from Sri Lanka. And to this day, Ambika and Shanthi—The Golden Girls—can often be seen standing side by side in the elephant yard. Ambika has not had any of her own calves, but Shanthi gave birth to Kumari in 1993 (but succumbed to the deadly EEHV virus in 1995) and again in 2001 to male Kandula. Kandula lived with Ambika and Shanthi until his move to his current home at Oklahoma City Zoo in 2015. Ambika is quite cautious of change, but when the calves arrived she played the role of “auntie” with grace.
Ambika can indeed claim acting on her résumé: she became a star in the June 1982 when she and Shanthi appeared on an episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. It was a rainy day when Fred Rogers visited the zoo, but the filming seemed to go well until Rogers climbed on Ambika’s back. According to the zoo’s newsletter, The Torch, “As soon as Mr. Rogers was perched atop Ambika’s back, she decided she wanted a bath and lumbered eagerly towards the pool. While zookeepers headed her off, ‘little’ (4,000 pound) Shanthi’s curiosity was piqued by the cameraman and his fascinating equipment. As she set off to investigate, our fleet-of-foot staffers quickly foiled a farcical finale.” The episode aired on June 4, 1982. (Spoiler alert: He also feeds the giant pandas.)
Despite her advanced age, Ambika is a healthy girl, which is attributed in great part to the wonderful care she receives on a daily basis. As elephant curator Tony Barthel humorously describes Ambika, “I tend to think of [her] as that 100-year-old person who still drives around and maybe uses the internet.” Keepers say her bloodwork always looks great. She and Shanthi (who is 44 years old) receive daily treatments for arthritis (supplements as well as foot and joint treatments). Elephants go through six sets of teeth during their lifetime, and Ambika is on her last set, so dental care is important. To help her chew her hay, her care team chops it up for her. (Elephants in the wild would starve to death after losing that last set of teeth, which is one reason why elephants are able to live longer in captivity.) Her only major health scare came in 2007 when she demonstrated symptoms of abdominal discomfort. A blood clot the size of a basketball was detected in her uterus, but with immediate treatment she made a full recovery.
When talking to the keepers, it is clear that they truly adore Ambika. With her increasing age, she doesn’t follow commands as well as she used to and might present the wrong body part. Keeper Kayleigh says, “We let her get away with it, because it’s Beeks.” Kayleigh also mentioned that age has not hindered Ambika’s love for water. “She loves to swim, and she will not hesitate to go all the way under. And sometimes you’ll see her floating on her side—it must feel good to take pressure off those arthritic legs and feet.”
When asked to describe our 70-year-old Asian elephant Ambika, keepers called these monikers to mind: friend, mentor, comedian, research partner and colleague. —National Zoo Facebook page
With a complete renovation of the elephant space in 2013, the zoo was prepared to increase the size of their herd and reinstate their breeding program. Ambika’s circle of friends has more than doubled in size. Arrivals since 2013 include Bozie (from Baton Rouge Zoo), the “Calgary Zoo trio” of Kamala, Maharani, and Swarna, and most recently “Big Spike,” also from Calgary. (Maharani and Spike have a recommendation to breed from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ Species Survival Plan, so we are all hoping for a baby in the next few years!)
A wonderful opportunity to meet Ambika and her friends is World Elephant Day on Monday, August 12. Listen to keepers talk about their daily routine with these amazing animals, attend special demonstrations, and learn how you can do your part to help save this endangered species.
Last year, Ambika’s birthday (the actual day of which is unknown) was celebrated on World Elephant Day, but according her care team, look for a special birthday celebration around the first of the year in 2020. Will she receive 20 cakes again? Stay tuned!
ID help: How do you spot 7,200-lb Ambika out of the herd of seven elephants? She has an extremely long trunk that is lighter pink in color at the end. She likes to tuck a piece of hay in the corner of her mouth, and she is often hanging out with the larger (9,000 lb.) Shanthi and Bozie, who has two prominent domes on the top of her head.
“Asian Elephant Is Not Pregnant, Zookeepers Find.” Washington Evening Star, January 15, 1963.
“‘Birthday’ Elephant Arrives at Zoo.” Washington Post, January 5, 1962: A2.
Casey, Phil. “Cleanup Time for Elephants.” Washington Post, July 16, 1968: B1.
Gabbett, Harry. “People-to-People Elephant Arrives from India in ‘Interesting’ Condition.” Washington Post, April 15, 1961: A1, C1.
Galloway, Marie. “Pachyderm Pals; at the Zoo, Ambika, Shanthi, Kandula and Marie Care for One Another.” Washington Post, February 25, 2007: B8.
“Gift Elephant from India Gets VIP Ceremony.” Washington Evening Star, January 5, 1962.
I struggled writing this piece, but I have to keep in mind that many stories from zoos past are not uplifting. It only highlights how much zoos have changed their focus from animal displays to research, welfare, and conservation of the animals. It also serves as a reminder about how far humans have come with advances in medicine. Zoos are a much better place because of these improvements. —Karie
Some animals that you surprisingly will not find at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo are the extremely popular penguins. After learning that the zoo used to have these affable birds, I had to do some digging into their DC story.
What I found was that during the time that the zoo featured penguins, they were a difficult beast to manage in captivity for a multitude of reasons. Relationship status: It’s Complicated.
In his book published in 1930, National Zoo Director William Mann noted, “We have never had much success with penguins. Of six Humboldt’s penguins (Spheniscus humboldti) from Chile, none lived longer than two months, as they were all affected with aspergillosis, a fungus disease of the lungs, when they arrived, and had lived for a week or so previously on an unnatural diet of bread and water. A rock-hopper penguin (Catarrhactespachyrhynchus) from southern New Zealand lived for one year and five months” (234–35). One of the rockhoppers died from injuries in a fight with two other birds. (The Washington Post article about the incident blamed the dreadful summer heat for the fight.) Additionally, penguins are susceptible to heat stroke and bacterial infections. Their living environment needs to be climate controlled with excellent ventilation systems. Care during transport to the zoo and upon arrival is vital (dehydration and heat exhaustion are common). Unaccustomed to eating dead fish, many have to be force-fed at first. In a nutshell, they are a very high maintenance bird.
These hazards did not stop the zoo from trying, however.
In 1933 the zoo acquired four Galapagos penguins from the Hancock Pacific-Galapagos Expedition, but the next year they were not listed in the zoo’s collection of animals. One can only assume that they succumbed to aspergillosis or other illnesses that plagued so many captive penguins. That same year the zoo also attempted to maintain a collection of African (jackass) penguins. Over the next year, sadly, the zoo would lose six of them to illness.
Still, the zoo kept trying. In late 1936 the National Zoo acquired six more African penguins after completing a major addition to the bird house, which included an improved refrigeration system and wading pool.
In 1938, as Hitler was invading countries in Europe, two of the birds provided DC with a much-needed diversion from the growing unease on the world stage. Penguin couple Millie and Moe produced two eggs—the first to ever appear at the zoo. And according to the Washington Post, no African penguin had been hatched successfully in any American zoo. Millie and Moe took turns incubating the eggs around the clock, while the city had to wait a month for the outcome. Meanwhile, another penguin couple began building a nest, as crowds poured into the bird house to catch a glimpse of the action.
After forty days (March 12), one of the eggs finally hatched—a “tiny clump of fuzz,” creating lots of buzz. The bird house was packed with photographers and reporters, along with DC residents trying to catch a glimpse of history. A local radio deejay even broadcasted the chick’s every move over the airwaves. The chick (whose gender was unknown) was named Malcolm, after Malcolm Davis, the bird keeper that spent most of his time attending to the needs of the parents-to-be. Over 20,000 visitors flocked to the bird house to catch a peek at the new arrival. (It’s not a surprise that the zoo topped 3 million visitors that year.)
Behold the Ides of March—the second egg hatched on March 15. The chick, named “Minnie,” gave the zoo another reason to cheer.
Less than a week later, first-born chick, Malcolm, died. On the positive side, the zoo’s director Mann noted, this birth was a boon to science, and the chick would be given to the National Museum for research and display. Then, on April 3, the only African penguin chick in captivity, Millie, died. Millie was transferred to the National Museum to be put on display with Malcolm. The zoo was devastated, but they remained optimistic that their two breeding couples would continue to hatch eggs. In fact, a month later, Mollie laid two more eggs. They, however, never hatched. The other penguin couple, Ada and Tux, weren’t having success, either.
The next year, in June 1939, Mollie again gave the zoo a shot of optimism. One egg hatched, and the little chick seemed to be thriving. At 24 days old, little Minnie penguin made his/her debut. Again, the National Zoo made history—Minnie was the oldest penguin chick to survive at the time. Sadly, the streak ended at 37 days. Minnie passed away, leaving the zoo officials scratching their heads. There was a reason that penguin births were so rare in captivity. But why? To add to the mystery, mother penguin Mollie died suddenly on August 15. The zoo could only speculate that she died of a broken heart after losing her baby (and further posited by the autopsy). In tribute to Mollie, the Washington Post called her the penguin that would not quit. She made history. She was the matriarch of the zoo’s favorite family.
(Side note: This was not the only death from a broken heart the zoo experienced in the penguin colony. In 1947, the zoo’s emperor penguin died after his female friend passed away. He refused to eat, had to be force-fed, and eventually collapsed and died in his enclosure.)
Even after the failure to raise a penguin chick to maturity, the zoo continued to nurture its penguin colony, making sure that the adults stayed healthy and thrived. One question: should they try to find Moe a new mate?
Another difficulty in keeping penguins, for most zoos, is the cost to transport them from their native areas. The National Zoo, however, has always benefited from DC’s government ties—foreign dignitaries would gift U.S. presidents with various animals from their native countries, which would then be sent to the zoo; and animals that had been subject of government/military studies would also be sent to SNZ to retire (see, for example, Ham the Astrochimp). Procuring penguins was also made easier by these ties. One example was a big reason why the National Zoo were able to exhibit penguins: five U.S. Navy expeditions to Antarctica.
Admiral Richard E. Byrd’s expeditions to Antarctica had previously brought back penguins for other zoos (namely Philadelphia and Chicago), so Director William Mann made a formal request on behalf of the National Zoo beginning in 1939. Malcolm Davis, head keeper in the bird house, accompanied Byrd on the expeditions.
After the first expedition, Davis returned to DC with one emperor penguin and 13 Adélie penguins. The emperor, according to the New York Times, was the first of its penguin species to be brought north of the equator. The 50-pound gorgeous and stately bird (named Dugan) was immediately the talk of the town. Unfortunately, in May 1940, a few months after his arrival, Dugan succumbed to a fungal infection in his throat, which the zoo at the time could not treat.
The next year, in May 1941, the second Antarctic expedition brought back 3 emperor and 4 gentoo penguins. Director Mann declared that the National Zoo now had “the best penguin collection.”
One has to but to walk through the 176 acres of natural parkland set aside for the Zoo and see the animals to understand why Washingtonians consider the hatching of penguin eggs of more interest than a clash on Capitol Hill…. A free show presents the world’s most remarkable birdhouse in any zoo….
—Washington Post, December 28, 1941
Little did they realize that seven months later the country would be at war, during which time very few animal collecting trips occurred. The Smithsonian Annual Reports for the years 1944–46 list 3 emperor, 4 jackass, 2 Humboldt penguins in the collection, so clearly there was a bit of fluctuation in the bird house in the 1940s. (And I’m not sure what happened to the 13 Adélie penguins from the Byrd expedition.)
In 1947, the third Byrd expedition (Operation Windmill) brought four different species of penguins to the National Zoo: emperor, macaroni, Adélie, and rockhoppers. (The New York Times reported that a total of 57 penguins were sent to New York as part of the expedition.) In the Washington Post, Mann touted the collection of six different species, which were the most popular exhibit at the zoo and the “finest penguin collection in the U.S.” He enthusiastically pointed out that between 30,000 and 60,000 people visit the zoo on weekends, and many of them head straight to the bird house.
Some of the penguins from Operation Windmill almost didn’t make it to the zoo. On April 14, 1947, eight of the birds decided to do some sightseeing when their crate broke open while being lowered from the ship. They jumped into the Anacostia River, rolling around on their backs and enjoying their freedom. Zoo officials feared that the dangerous levels of water pollution would kill them. Harbor police were able to capture five of them within a few hours. One was found four days later twenty miles away in Maryland. The other two were presumably never found.
The zoo again topped 3 million visitors the next year (and the few years that followed), and once again more penguins arrived: 4 king, 8 emperor, and 4 Adélie collected by another Antarctic expedition. A Washington Post article mentioned that the emperor penguins replaced the dozen from the previous expedition—all of which had died of respiratory disease. The National Zoo was still the only zoo to house emperors in their collection. The jackass and Humboldt penguins seemed to thrive the best in DC.
The zoo wasn’t having any luck with penguin births, either. One Humboldt chick hatched in 1948, but it lived only a few days. Director Mann believed that the DC climate made it impossible to them to survive.
At this point, all of the emperor penguins collected by the Antarctic expeditions had died. A fourth expedition brought back seven of these penguins (along with 4 Adélie) in March 1955 to give it another try. (King and Humboldt penguins also arrived that year from other sources, and a few other emperors went to the Bronx Zoo to be displayed in their new state-of-the-art penguin house.) The zoo worked hard to prevent the respiratory disease that was killing the birds—improved cleaning methods and better air filtration, lowered temperature and humidity levels. Still, the birds struggled to thrive. According to the 1955 Annual Report, researchers at the National Institute of Health had isolated the organism and were working to find a chemical or bacterial agent that would eradicate it.
By early July, all of the emperor penguins had died, all from aspergillosis, and only one of the Adélie was still living. Now the Bronx Zoo was the only zoo in the country to exhibit the large emperors, and zoos in Tokyo and Switzerland were the only other places in the world to house them. Mann lamented, “We had the best doctors we could get. We tried to filter the air—we tried everything.” He noted that the two in the Bronx were thriving—one had even laid an egg—so it was a true mystery as to why those in DC did not live. A Washington Post reporter pleaded with the zoo to end the quest for emperor penguins after another expedition was requested by head keeper Davis. However, the plea was ignored, and three more emperors were brought to the bird house. All died within five days from the same fungal disease. According to the 1956 Annual Report, the birds were treated with two medications via a nebulizer, but the pathology report suggested that had the treatment been started earlier it would have been effective. The 1957 Annual Report also detailed a research effort to study the fungal infection by a biologist (Dr. William Sladen) at Johns Hopkins University and scientist at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Research Laboratory in Patuxent, Maryland. New treatments were being developed, and much more had been learned about the disease, but a cure still had not been developed.
(Side note: To this day, SeaWorld San Diego has been the only North American institution to house a successful captive emperor penguin colony. Since 1980, more than twenty emperor penguins have been hatched and raised there.)
In 1958 the research efforts intensified, as the zoo acquired 12 Adélie penguins by way of the U.S. Navy’s Operation Deep Freeze for the primary purpose of studying the disease. The birds arrived in February, and by the end of June, four were living. A new antifungal drug, called a “miracle drug” by the Baltimore Sun, had been administered for the first time that year, “with some degree of success,” according to the Annual Report (174).
The 1960s seemed to welcome a turning point for penguins in captivity. Researchers were finally starting to understand and better treat the dreaded aspergillosis. Zoos were collaborating on care and treatment of their penguin collections (see Davis 1967). Exhibit spaces and hygiene practices were improving. In 1961, the Baltimore Zoo acquired 10 Humboldt penguins—after attempting to house penguins a few times in the 1950s. Their proximity to Dr. Sladen at Johns Hopkins undoubtedly gave them confidence to manage a successful penguin colony. On the emperor penguin front, the Aalborg Zoo in Denmark received more than ten emperor penguins in 1963, one of which lived until 1983. (However, they did not have a chick that hatched and survived more than a few days.)
At the National Zoo, the 1960s seemed to mark the end of the penguin collection. Head keeper Malcolm Davis retired in July 1960, and in December 1962 the remaining five penguins in the collection were sent to Saint Louis Zoo while the bird house underwent major renovations.
The renovations took several years to complete. Finally, in March 1966, the beginning of construction on the new multi-climate building was announced. (We can only speculate that construction was delayed due to budget constraints.) The sole indication that the building was complete the next year is a photo of penguins enjoying their new digs, courtesy of the Washington Post. The 1968 Annual Report mentioned the purchase of macaroni penguins, which arrived in May 1968.
That is where the story mysteriously ends. After 1968, the local newspapers and Smithsonian annual reports do not mention any presence of penguins at the National Zoo. I can only speculate that without a penguin expert on staff, the zoo decided to focus their efforts on other species and sent any remaining penguins to the Baltimore Zoo. An article from July 1987 indicated that then-director Michael Robinson had a vision to introduce penguins by the year 2000, but that obviously never became a reality.
Although it’s unfortunate that the National Zoo does not feature penguins, one only has to travel up to Baltimore to enjoy the largest African penguin colony in the country. In fact, over 1,000 chicks have hatched there. The impressive exhibit is well worth the trip, and I highly recommend purchasing a penguin encounter for the rare opportunity to interact with (and pet!) their ambassador penguins.
UPDATE (9/3/2019): According to a few sources close to the zoo on social media, a bout of avian malaria is what ended the penguin program at the National Zoo. I was able to verify that there was indeed an outbreak among SNZ’s macaroni penguins in 1969 (“Blood parasites of penguins: a critical review”).
“Valuable Penguin Killed in Fight with Zoo Mates.” Washington Post, July 27, 1926: 2.
Mann, William M. Wild Animals In and Out of the Zoo. Volume 6 of the Smithsonian Scientific Series. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution, 1930.
Given that the Smithsonian’s National Zoo currently houses only three species of bears (don’t get me wrong—they’re really great bears!), it’s crazy to think that in the early 1900s the zoo had one of the largest collections of bears in the country. In his book published in 1930, Dr. William Mann—the zoo’s director from 1925 until 1956—listed twenty-one different species/subspecies of bears (170 individual bears total) that had lived in Rock Creek Park’s “Bear Row” since 1890.
As you can imagine, housing so many bears can create quite a space conundrum. In the early 1930s, when zookeepers noticed that two particular bears—Snowy, a male polar bear and Ramona, a female Kodiak bear—seemed friendly towards each other, they were placed in the same enclosure (along with Snowy’s female polar bear friend, Marion). To the zoo’s surprise, Ramona became pregnant and gave birth in February 1935. One cub lived fifteen days and the other died a few days later, but the zoo was now aware, and quite giddy, that the two could breed successfully. This mix was simply unheard of . . . but more on that a bit later.
Snowy and Ramona were reunited after the birth. The genetic experiment recommenced with all scientific eyes on DC.
The local press has some fun with the “modern saga of The Three Bears.” Dubbed a polygamist by the Washington Post, Snowy the polar bear had apparently become irritable when Ramona was moved to a private enclosure with her cubs. Marian, the polar female, felt scorned by her crabby male friend, who ignored her. The drama was mostly kept to a minimum when the threesome was reunited. The Post informed its readership of the latest in the rare soap opera unfolding in Rock Creek Park.
Exactly a year later, in February 1936, Ramona gave birth to four cubs. (She had been separated from the other adult bears a few months earlier so that the keepers could more closely monitor her and better attend to the needs any cubs. The vet staff wanted to take every precaution necessary.) The first of their kind, three of the yellowish-white hybrid bears—two males named Taku and Fridgee, and a female named Pokodiak—lived to be healthy adult bears; the fourth had died a few weeks after birth.
At the time of their birth, there were no other confirmed instances of hybrid Kodiak-polar bears in either the wild or in captivity. Other hybrid bears existed: A black bear–European brown bear hybrid was born at the London Zoo in the 1850s but did not live to maturity; a European brown bear–polar bear hybrid was born at a zoo in Stuttgart, Germany in 1876 and did live to adulthood. A Kodiak and a polar bear, however, had not proven to be a successful breeding pair. In the wild, it could have happened, but their habitat ranges were far enough apart that it would have been an extremely rare occurrence. Grizzly bears (Ursus arctos horribilis) would be more likely to mate with polar bears because they can be found in northern Canada, closer to the polar bear range. Kodiak bears (Ursus arctos middendorffi) have a much more limited habitat range on Kodiak Island in southwest Alaska.
It was as unnatural, Dr. Mann said, as if two mules had produced offspring. —Washington Post, January 8, 1949
At three months of age the “three little Whatsit bears” were introduced to the public. The cubs delighted the District. Camera crews risked falling into the bear pit to get a good photo. The Washington Post described the combined 42 pounds of fluff as “plump and wooly like Chow puppies.” Over the next several months, the cubs were treated to a diet of cod-liver oil, fruits, vegetables, and meat juice to ensure that they remained as healthy as possible. The local paper noted that they were treated just as well as human babies.
Snowy and Ramona again reunited after spending two and a half years apart. (By this time, Marion was placed in a separate enclosure.) Another male cub, Willie, was born in February 1939. As the first litter of cubs were three years old at this point, their playful antics and the birth of Willie certainly played a role in the zoo breaking the three-million-visitor mark that year. DC was bear crazy way before the pandas arrived!
The successful births of the four healthy cubs may have surprised the genetics world, but, according to Dr. Mann, an amazing twenty-three Kodiak-polar cubs were born over the next twenty years. Only four, sadly, lived to adulthood.
The biggest surprise (and presumed impossibility) of all occurred when Pokodiak and Willie produced a healthy male cub in 1950 (the other five in the litter did not survive). Believed to be sterile, this second-generation hybrid cub gave the genetics world something to scratch their heads and talk about—not only because he was a second-generation hybrid but also because his parents were brother and sister (although as you might remember from Mohini’s story, inbreeding was not uncommon in zoos back then).
It shouldn’t have been born at all. It violates all the laws of zoology and biology, of Mendel and Darwin, of.… It violates the laws of everything.” —Zoo Director Dr. William Mann in the Washington Post, January 27, 1950
In the history of second-generation hybrid bears at the National Zoo (1950–1976), two of fourteen cubs survived. The first “miracle” cub born in 1950—aptly named “Gene,” short for genetics—became quite a celebrity at the zoo. An estimated 30,000 visitors attended Gene’s first day on exhibit as an adorable, wobbly three-month-old. He even shared an enclosure with another celebrity bear of the same age—Smokey, the National Parks spokesbear. They got along very well—they liked to wrestle, one larger but the other faster, according to Dr. Mann. That year, with a total of forty bears calling DC home, the National Zoo’s attendance reached an amazing 3.4 million visitors.
The Kodiak-polar bear era at the National Zoo ended when the last hybrid bear, Pokodiak, passed away in 1974 at 38 years of age. (Unfortunately I could not track down where Gene’s path led him in adulthood.) The Smithsonian Annual Report noted that the hybrid bears were famous for their scientific uniqueness and wowed audiences with their massive size. (Kodiak bears are larger than grizzly bears. Male bear Willie was nearly 1,400 pounds!)
With climate change a grim reality, the hybridization of bears will become more common in the Arctic regions of North America, as a shared habitat becomes more frequent. In 2006, the occurrence of the grizzly-polar bear hybrid in the wild was confirmed by DNA testing near Sachs Harbour on Banks Island in the Canadian Arctic. Confirmed hybrids have since risen to eight—and all descending from the same adventurous female polar bear.
To end on a happy note, head over to the National Zoo and say hello to the fabulous giant pandas, sloth bears, and Andean bears (and all the other wonderful animals as well!) as spring rapidly approaches.
Altshuler, Melvin. “Zoo’s Who’s Whos’ News.” Washington Post, September 27, 1950: B1.
“Bear-Faced Remarks.” Washington Post, July 23, 1957: A1.
Brinkley, Bill. “Genetic Wonder of Wonders, Hybrid Cub of Hybrid Bears May Be Seen at Zoo.” Washington Post, January 27, 1950.
Brinkley, Bill. “Hybrid Bears Have Babies, Baffling All.” Washington Post, January 5, 1950: 7.
Brinkley, Bill. “Poster Bear Smokey Joins Zoo Star List: Move Over, Gene.” Washington Post, June 17, 1950: 1.
There might be a “big” reason that Valentine’s Day and National Hippo Day are back-to-back (February 14 and 15). After all, what greater romance involves nearly 14,000 pounds? Such was the case at the National Zoo—the love story of Arusha and Joe Smith, the Nile hippo couple who spent 25 years together in the Elephant House . . . and raised 18 calves!
The mighty Arusha was born in 1952 in Tanzania and arrived at the National Zoo in June of 1955 as an 865-pound three-year-old. Shortly thereafter, Joe Smith arrived in DC, still a baby at six months old but immediately inaugurating hopes for future baby hippos at the zoo.
After establishing their bond early in life and maturing into adulthood together, Arusha gave birth to their first calf in June of 1959. This event shocked everyone—no one at the zoo knew that she was expecting! Thus began their successful dive into parenthood.
After the first-born, according to the Washington Post, Arusha gave birth every year through 1967 (the gestation period for hippos is eight months). That year, so high was the zoo’s confidence in her ability to bear healthy offspring that her calf was donated to Chile ever before it was born. Arusha did not disappoint.
She is not a pretty mother, but she is infallibly fertile, and she and Joe get along.
—Phil Casey, Washington Post, May 24, 1967
The only time that Arusha and Joe were separated was during the first week or so after each birth. Arusha was a protective mother, so Joe was moved out of Arusha and the calf’s space so that they could bond alone—and also so that the matriarch couldn’t rough Joe up. He understood very well that Arusha was the boss, so most of the time he knew when not to get too close. When she finally entrusted him with babysitting, Arusha would let him know when it was his time to give her a break from parenting. According to a keeper, Joe would even carry hay to Arusha so that she could dine in her pool. What a sweet guy!
Arusha and Joe’s accomplishments set a record for the number of Nile hippo births in captivity. Perhaps they benefited from something in the Elephant House water. In that same building, Billy made the National Zoo famous for its successful pygmy hippopotamus breeding. Formally named William Johnson Hippopotamus, Billy was a gift to President Calvin Coolidge in 1927, and until his death in 1955 he had sired 18 little gumdrops between mates Hannah and Matilda (yes, they were all named Gumdrop [followed by Roman numerals]—and interestingly all but one were female!). According to the zoo, the lineage of most pygmy hippos living in captivity in the United States today can be traced back to virile Billy. (After successfully breeding a whopping 52 of them, the National Zoo no longer has pygmy hippos, as the last of them were transferred to other zoos with the renovation of the Elephant House in 2009.)
Arusha and Joe’s offspring were offered to other zoos worldwide shortly after weaning due to space constraints. The one exception was Happy (nicknamed “Joe Jr.” by the keepers), born January 4, 1981—a few months after father Joe sadly passed away. (I could not find any information about the cause of death. Most news coming out of the zoo at that time focused on the fervent yet disappointing attempts at breeding Ling-Ling the giant panda.)
Happy’s arrival seemed to help Arusha recover from the loss of Joe. Before Happy, Arusha would watch the hippo tank and react to any noise, possibly anticipating Joe’s return. The Washington Post noted that she seemed to be “quite listless.” One other behavior she picked up after her mate’s death was his ritual of bellowing just before the zoo’s closing time. It was if he was announcing to the visitors that it was time to leave. Never having participated before, Arusha resumed his tradition, with the keepers’ prediction that she would continue until Happy would become old enough to take over.
Arusha and son Happy remained together at the National Zoo until Arusha’s death in 2004 at the age of 52. Happy lived solo but was certainly spoiled by his keepers. “He gets two meals a day. He has ceiling fans, skylights, spray showers, an exotic mural on his walls, as well as two pools,” reported the Washington Post. Happy was a favorite of keeper John Taylor, who was exceptionally sad to see him depart for the Milwaukee County Zoo in 2009, as plans to expand the elephant habitat did not include a home for hippos at the National Zoo.
Although he hasn’t followed his father’s fertile footsteps, Happy is currently living in Milwaukee with a female friend, Patti, and doing well. The handsome guy celebrated his 38th birthday last month.
Happy the hippo at Milwaukee County Zoo. Photos from the zoo’s Facebook page.
Happy the hippo at Milwaukee County Zoo. Photos from the zoo’s Facebook page.
Happy the hippo at Milwaukee County Zoo. Photos from the zoo’s Facebook page.
To say that the Wells family was shocked to discover that Bimbo was living just a few miles away at the National Zoo is a serious understatement. Kenneth and Margaretta Wells, along with their two children, had spent four years in Chiang Mai, Thailand, where the Reverend Dr. Kenneth served as headmaster of the Prince Royal’s College, a Presbyterian missionary school. They returned to the United States in 1951, making the DC area their home.
While living in Thailand, the Wells family adopted a black white-handed gibbon named Bimbo, who loved playing with the Wells children and students at the school, generating laughs with her antics, and tormenting the neighborhood pets. She developed a fondness for fresh pineapple and expensive British chocolates and would join the Wells family for waffle breakfasts. (It would take her days to lick all of the syrup out of her fur!) Bimbo was family.
A home video by the Wells family. Bimbo appears at the beginning of the clip. Source: Presbyterian Historical Society
After four years in Thailand, it was time for the Wellses to return to the United States. Unable to take Bimbo with them, the heartbroken Wells family arranged for the gibbon to live with friends, with the understanding that if they could not care for her that they would find her a good, loving home. They tearfully said their goodbyes to Bimbo and Thailand.
Fifteen months later, when the daily Washington Post arrived at the Wells’s home in Arlington, Virginia, Kenneth showed his family a large photo of a gibbon that accompanied a story about new arrivals from Thailand at the National Zoo. “That looks like Bimbo,” he commented. His eighteen-year-old daughter exclaimed that it HAD to be Bimbo—“No other gibbon looks like Bimbo!” Roberta’s mother told her not to get her hopes up too high, that there is a very slim chance that it was actually Bimbo—after all, Thailand was full of black gibbons. Their curiosity highly peaked, the Wells family enthusiastically journeyed into the city to visit the new zoo arrival.
Their initial attempts to engage with the gibbon proved unsuccessful due to heavy crowds. Not giving up, the next day Kenneth contacted Ernest P. Walker, the assistant director of the zoo. Wells recounted their story and inquired about the possibility of meeting the gibbon early in the morning before the crowds descended upon the zoo. Agreeing but dubious, Walker explained that the gibbon was indeed purchased from a dealer in Bangkok, but that he was unaware of how the gibbon would have made its way from Chiang Mai in northern Thailand to Bangkok near the coast—a 400-mile distance. Could it really be Bimbo?
On a Friday morning, the Wells family met Walker at the Small Mammal House. Clutching a tin of pineapple and a box of chocolates, the children began calling out to the gibbon with the endearing coos that they used back in Thailand. But would she remember after fifteen months and in a completely different setting? Bimbo immediately started crying and attempted to hug Roberta through the bars. She then gobbled down her favorite, familiar treats. Roberta asked Walker if she could enter the enclosure to make sure there was no question of Bimbo’s identity; Walker agreed, offering safety warnings. Within seconds of the Wellses entering the gibbon space, Bimbo latched onto both children tightly and cried softly. Everyone was in tears. Roberta then rubbed Bimbo just under her eyebrows—a gesture that gibbons normally despise but Bimbo grew to love. Bimbo refused to let go of them. That was enough to convince Walker. (He did draw the line at using waffles and syrup as proof.)
That is the first time I’ve seen a gibbon enjoying English creams. She is yours without a doubt.
—Ernest P. Walker, assistant director of the National Zoological Park
The story of this amazing reunion attracted national press. The Wells family returned to the zoo for a photo shoot, and Margaretta Wells penned an article about the reunion, which appeared in the July 1953 issue of National Geographic. (This article includes thirteen fantastic photos of the Wells family with Bimbo.) Visitors flocked to the Small Mammal House to catch a glimpse of the celebrity gibbon.
The Wells family enjoyed regular visits with Bimbo. She often had to forgo her chocolate treats with other gibbons lurking, but I’m sure knowing that her “family” was close it made her life at the National Zoo, half a world from her homeland, a much happier one.
“Arlington Family, Former Pet Reunited by Picture in Post.” Washington Post (June 15, 1953), p. 15.
For this installment of “Zoo Walks through History,” I have the extreme pleasure of interviewing Kara Arundel, author of Raising America’s Zoo: How Two Wild Gorillas Helped Transform the National Zoo (Mascot Books, 2017). Kara has a personal connection to the National Zoo’s history and the events that unfold in her book. In 1955, her father-in-law, Arthur “Nick” Arundel (childhood author of Nicky’s News) and formerly enlisted Marine, participated in a safari expedition in the Belgian Congo, only to return to DC with an infant gorilla under each arm. Moka and Nikumba would become the first gorillas since 1932 to reside at the National Zoo and would help pave the way for SNZ to become a highly respected institution for gorilla conservation and research.
How did your father-in-law transition from Nicky’s News fame to presenting Moka and Nikumba to the National Zoo?
Dr. William Mann was a close friend of the Arundel family. Mann had been the National Zoo’s director in 1936 when an 8-year-old young Nicky Arundel started a neighborhood newspaper to advocate for giraffes at the National Zoo. Mann was still zoo director in 1955 when Nick Arundel, went on a pleasure safari to Africa and brought back two baby gorillas for the National Zoo.
What were those initial conversations like between Nick and the zoo regarding the gorilla transaction?
The first two gorillas at the National Zoo came in 1928 and 1931, but both died after only a few years at the zoo. By the 1950s, Dr. Mann decided he wanted bring gorillas back to the National Zoo. From the 1920s through the 1950s, zoos often acquired gorillas by contracting with hunters. But as early as the 1940s, many African colonial governments started putting restrictions on hunting, including the number of gorillas that could be captured. Mann was negotiating with his international contacts to get gorillas, but the zoo couldn’t afford the steep price for two young gorillas.
Nick was not involved in these negotiations but when Nick and his family began planning a family trip to Africa, Nick and his father offered to help capture gorillas and escort the animals to America.
How were Russell and Nick able to get past the restrictions in place for obtaining and exporting gorillas?
That’s an excellent question. The National Zoo had permits to export gorillas. But documents from the Smithsonian Institution Archives—and Nick Arundel’s journals—talk both about Nick capturing the gorillas as well as donating $10,000 to the French Equatorial African government, which already had two gorillas in captivity. The book lays out these two narratives and the sources.
I conclude in my book that it was more likely the Arundels paid the F.E.A. for the gorillas. Nick, however, was a formerly enlisted Marine and CIA operative who worked covert missions in Korea and Vietnam. His capturing gorillas with the help of natives may have been unlikely but not impossible in 1955.
I’m trying to imagine myself on an airplane with two baby gorillas. It must have been a bit easier than bringing back, say, two giraffes, but still a challenge!
Yes, that’s definitely not allowed these days. At first, Nick had a hard time finding an airline to fly him to America with the baby gorillas. Sabena Airlines, a small Belgian airline, agreed after Nick promised to have newspaper photographers on the tarmac when they touched down in New York to take pictures of the gorillas—and the plane. Nick prepared baby bottles of infant formula and packed diapers for the trip. He had also spent nearly a week with the gorillas getting them used to him as their temporary caregiver. Nick also had the gorillas examined by a veterinarian in the Belgian Congo who discovered that Nikumba had a cold and a parasitic disease that causes diarrhea. The young gorilla was put on medicine right away and Nick determined he was well enough to fly.
It was winter so the gorillas traveled with Nick in the passenger cabin with airline passengers taking turns feeding the baby gorillas with bottles. The trio first stopped in Brussels where a heated truck drove the gorillas to the Antwerp Zoo where they rested for the night. The next day, Nick and the gorillas flew on another Sabena aircraft to Idlewild Airport (now John F. Kennedy Airport) where, as Nick promised, a waiting press corps took photos.
One of the themes of your book that I found fascinating was how the practice of acquiring animals for the zoo has changed dramatically and how much the welfare and care of the animals has improved so much. We have learned a lot about zoo management since the 1950s! I’m sure your father-in-law would love seeing the gorilla spaces evolve from smaller cages to much larger exhibit spaces and large outdoor yards.
The zoo’s transformation is a prominent theme of the book. In no way am I discounting the efforts by earlier zoo leaders and the challenges they faced, such as rations for World War II efforts and budget disagreements between the federal government and District of Columbia. There is evidence throughout the zoo’s history that compassion for animals was a top priority.
Significant changes began happening in the 1960s and 1970s, however, when international and national conservation agreements were enforced and more was known about gorillas’ behaviors in the wild. These developments really influenced better animal management practices at zoos.
Nick Arundel, who was one of the first board members of the Friends of the National Zoo and later a FONZ board president, wanted a first-class zoo, and he was impatient with what he saw as slow progress. In the 1970s, when he was FONZ president, he called the National Zoo a “national disgrace.” He was so excited when the Great Ape House and its adjacent outdoor play yard opened in 1981, allowing Nikumba his first opportunity to step on grass since leaving Africa. Nick continued to support the zoo and the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute until he died in 2011.
One other fascinating part of your narrative is how many men transitioned from big game hunters to conservationists—starting with William Hornaday and continuing with the members of the African Safari Club. How do you think that “lightbulb” turned on where they realized that the hunting of exotic wild animals was no longer desirable?
Nick was a member of the African Safari Club, whose members met regularly to discuss the sport of hunting: the weapons, animals, and places. Nick and four other members formed the African Wildlife Leadership Foundation in 1961 when they became concerned about the loss of protections for African wildlife during decolonization. The original goal was to help train Africans to manage the continent’s wildlife resources. Their change of heart came alongside the global realization that exotic wild animals need protecting to ensure they won’t go extinct.
Some of the early AWLF members still supported and participated in the sport of hunting non-threatened animals, though they found it difficult to explain the difference between protecting some animals while hunting others.
The title of your book, and the part you have a personal connection to—the gorillas—is certainly a major storyline in the book, but you weave in so many more interesting stories about the zoo’s history. Was your intention to focus on the gorillas but ended up branching out more?
I always had a sharp focus on the story of the gorillas at the National Zoo. I began researching the book simply because I wanted to learn more about how Nick captured two gorillas and brought them to America. Over the five years it took me to research and write the book, I learned so much more about the National Zoo, the people who worked there, and the animals who lived there. The full history of the National Zoo’s gorillas could not be told without understanding the stories of the gorilla caregivers, other animals at the zoo, and the spirit of cooperation of zoos across America as they grew their animal conservation missions.
Your book is so well researched. You must have camped out in the Smithsonian Archives! When you were poring through these artifacts, did you stumble upon any surprises?
The Smithsonian Institution Archives collects and preserves all the documents from the Smithsonian Institution museums, including the National Zoo. I was amazed at how much documentation SIA kept since the zoo was founded in 1889. There were reports, letters, maps, photos, oral histories, and more. It would have been very difficult to tell the stories in my book without all the available historical documents.
SIA’s Reading Room is in Washington, D.C., is free and open to the public. I made nearly two dozen visits to review the National Zoo’s files. On one trip, I was reading through a primate log book from the 1970s, which had handwritten notes from the keepers about what each animal ate, their behaviors, and social activity. As I was turning pages, a clump of black hair fell onto my lap! I examined it closer and realized it was probably gorilla hair. I put it back between the pages and kept reading. I never knew what I’d find in those files and luckily, I never found any live animals!
Mandara—“Super Mom”! I was very excited that you included the legendary story of her “adopting” baby Baraka—much like when she “borrowed” Moke last year. Wouldn’t you love to know how her “adoption” of Baraka really unfolded?
Absolutely! “Mandy” as some keepers affectionately called her gave birth to her first offspring in 1991 when she was only 7 years old. Kejana’s birth was the first gorilla birth at the National Zoo in nearly 20 years and the young Mandara proved to be an excellent mom. Just 11 months after Kejana was born, another female gorilla gave birth at the Great Ape House. The zoo was closing for the evening and Haloko went to a behind-the-scences part of the gorilla exhibit. About 15 minutes later, Mandara appeared holding Haloko’s newborn baby—Baraka Ya M’Welu. No one knows if Haloko gave Baraka to Mandara or if she took him from Haloko, but Haloko did not appear to try to get her infant back. Mandara continued to nurse and care for both Kejana and Baraka. Mandara would have five more healthy babies at the National Zoo over the next two decades.
Now that Moke has been born, you realize your book needs a second edition, right? (No pressure!) Are there any future projects on the horizon?
I would love to write a second edition of Raising America’s Zoo! There are many more animals, animal caregivers, and advocates that deserve to have their stories shared. I’d love to hear from everyone’s suggestions. Please write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I cannot thank Kara enough for sharing her insights. If you have not already, pick up a copy of her fascinating book. She has inspired several of my blog posts thus far and certainly many more to come!
Kara will also be discussing her book at the Tenley-Friendship Library in Northwest DC on Wednesday, March 6 at 7 p.m. I hope to see you there!