Kojo talks with author Colson Whitehead about his new novel "The Underground Railroad" and its resonance at this particular moment in history.
In 2012, the world watched while the National Zoo experienced the joy of new birth and crushing sudden loss just days apart. While the death of the zoo’s 6-day-old panda cub captured international headlines in the fall, lesser-known residents have been making news of their own. Kojo talks to National Zoo Director Dennis Kelly about some of the institution’s newest arrivals and what big changes visitors can expect this year.
- Dennis Kelly Director, Smithsonian’s National Zoological Park
MR. KOJO NNAMDIThis fall, the National Zoo experienced the highs and the terrible lows of being thrust into the international spotlight. For the first time since 2005, the zoo's 14-year-old panda, Mei Xiang, gave birth. But six days later, the cub died of liver and lung damage, devastating zoo staffers and thousands watching on the zoo's famous panda cam. While the birth and death of the baby panda grabbed the biggest headlines for the National Zoo recently, many other changes have been quietly reshaping this 124-year-old institution.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom new salt water pools for seals to eco-friendly digs for Asian elephants, the landscape for humans and animals alike is changing dramatically. And did I mention the upgrade in food service? So what can we expect to see at the zoo this year? Are zookeepers trying for another black-and-white bundle of joy? And how is the zoo and its inhabitants coping during the federal financial storm? Here to tell us what's new at the zoo is Dennis Kelly, director of the Smithsonian's National Zoo. Dennis Kelly, thank you for joining us. Good to see you again.
MR. DENNIS KELLYGreat to see you again, Kojo.
NNAMDILast year was a study in contrast at the zoo. You had some well-received new exhibits open like the American Trail, a new carousel and several new births. But the year closed with the surprise birth and death of the baby panda. So I'll start by asking the question on all of our listeners' minds. Are you trying for another baby panda this spring?
KELLYYes, we are. The giant panda is an important icon of our zoo. But more importantly, it's important to our research. We've been researching and studying giant pandas for, now, almost 40 years. So after the surprise birth and the tragic death, I consulted -- I actually went to China, met with our colleagues there, and we agreed that we need to do our best to get a cub. And we also agreed that Mei Xiang is the best the candidate, the best opportunity for us to have another cub to continue our research in saving this very iconic and endangered species.
NNAMDISo it's going to be Mei Xiang again. Are the chances good, you think, that she can do it again?
KELLYI think they are. You know, we looked at the statistics and we know that the best indication of whether or not a mammal can get pregnant is how long ago they were pregnant. And our scientists in collaboration with the Chinese scientists have determined that she's a terrific candidate to have a healthy cub next -- this coming year.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is our number if you'd like to join the conversation with Dennis Kelly, director of the Smithsonian's National Zoo. Have you visited the new exhibits at the zoo? What did you think? Are you a panda cam watcher? Have social media changed the way you keep up with news from our nation's zoos? 800-433-8850 or send email to email@example.com. The death of the panda cub, of course, was the most high-profiled loss at the zoo in 2012, but you also had some other notable passings and births. Let's talk about them starting with the loss of your Sumatran tiger in November.
KELLYThat's right. We had a -- the death of our Sumatran tiger which, in a way, was a celebration because this has been an animal that had lived a long, great life, was considered geriatric, probably lived a year or two past its mean life expectancy. But more importantly, that Sumatran tiger birthed four cubs. And, Kojo, you know, there's only 400 Sumatran tigers left in the wild.
NNAMDISo I read.
KELLYSo that was an important animal. We now have two Sumatran tigers who have been breeding. And as part of the species survival plan of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, they've asked us to continue to try and have a baby tiger so that we maintain this population, which is so endangered in the wild.
NNAMDIYou also lost a young howler monkey named Loki in the fall.
KELLYThat's right. We had a birth of a howler monkey, and it died. And we found on necropsy that there seemed to be a vitamin D deficiency, and we don't know whether it was congenital or not. But this kind of research had never been done before. You know, the National Zoo is one of the few zoos in the world that has a full-time pathology staff. We've discovered new diseases as a result of this. So the howler monkey, which I'm pleased to announce, had a baby recently.
KELLYBut before that baby was born, we increased a regimen of vitamin D in the mom's diet. We increased the amount of ultraviolet light that the animals received. We're actually given the baby vitamin D supplements. But most importantly, we're wondering now what's going on in the wild. Are howler monkeys naturally predisposed towards vitamin D deficiencies? That's another area our researchers can investigate.
NNAMDIThe next time I go to the rainforest in Costa Rica and they keep waking me up at four and five o'clock in the morning, I'll ask them. I'll let you know. In happier news, you had several newborns at the zoo that did survive, starting with the birth of two Andean bear cubs just before Christmas. Why was this a big deal?
KELLYYou know, Andean bear cubs are also an endangered species in South America, and the National Zoo is the only place in North America where Andean bear cubs have been born in the last seven years. So we produced two cubs that have now been sent to other institutions. But this was also a very interesting situation with the genetically important mom and dad, but the dad unfortunately was diagnosed with cancer.
KELLYWe did surgery. We're able to stabilize him of jaw cancer, but he was able to breed one more time before he unfortunately passed away. So here we have the cubs of this genetically important male the dad has passed on, but these two new Andean bear cubs will be an important addition to the species' survival plan.
NNAMDINational Zoo is home, it's my understanding, to the only surviving Andean bear cubs in North America.
KELLYThe only ones born in the last seven years, that's right. And so it's an important milestone for us.
NNAMDIWell, I love the story about how your zookeepers gave Billy Jean an ultrasound before she gave birth. Can you tell us how that happened, how'd you pulled it off?
KELLYCertainly. We -- these bears are well trained, they're well cared for, and they voluntarily will present themselves for an ultrasound just like a human ultrasound, but the bear and the keeper are separated by safety bars. But the -- Billy Jean allowed the keeper to put the ultrasound probe, and we're able to see not once, but twice the twins as they developed. So it was an important milestone -- medical -- and also a real tribute to our keepers who were able to train safe with these bears. They don't need to be anesthetized. They voluntarily allowed themselves to be ultrasounded.
NNAMDIDo we know yet whether the twins are males or females?
KELLYWe don't know. We let mom take care of them, and we let her handle them. We have not been in yet to see them. But anybody can watch them on the zoo's bear cam, and maybe someday else will see them for the first time. But we'll probably go in the next two or three weeks and be able to get our hands on them and see how they're doing. But so far, they appear and sound great, and you can listen in on them on our webcams.
NNAMDIIf you're listening on this broadcast and would like join us, call us at 800-433-8850. Do you have suggestions for the National Zoo director? Give us a call, 800-433-8850. You also have some new rare tentacled snakes that made a surprise appearance despite the fact that you've been trying to breed these snakes for four years.
KELLYWe've been trying to breed them, and there's not been much successful tentacled snakes in the last decade. This is an important, I think, very interesting animal from Southeast Asia that has a lot of things we can learn. For example, they can make themselves go completely stiff so they look like a branch or a root in the water while they're hunting for their prey. We believe they use their tentacles to actually sense the presence of small fish and amphibians in the water. But like everything we do, we document. You know, Kojo, a third of our budget goes towards research and conservation.
NNAMDIWe're going to talk a little more about research in a little while. Why was the birth of the rare tentacled snakes so significant? What will happen to those snakes when they mature?
KELLYWell, they'll be distributed to other institutions that can also study them so we can understand why in some places they breed and why in some please they don't. You know, they're being threatened by development, by human encroachment. And by breeding them and understanding why we were successful and many others were not, we might be able to help our colleagues in Southeast Asia plan for development plans that would save them in the wild.
NNAMDIDon your headphones, please. I'd like to go to Kathleen in Ashton, Md. Kathleen, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
KATHLEENOh, good morning or good afternoon to both of you. I have a concern about the support of the panda program, which is an aid to the pandas in China at the same time when China is largely responsible for the killing of elephants for their ivory. That's my comment, how you can justify one over the other.
KELLYWell, Kathleen, it's certainly a tough issue. We've been supporting panda research and breeding for the last 40 years and we -- the money that we send to them we recognize as going in to conservation. And not just pandas are thriving but species like Tonkin and golden monkey and others that are in the Sichuan and Shaanxi and Gansu provinces. You're right. I am -- we all should be concerned about the fact that a number of people are wanting ivory for a whole host of reasons.
KELLYAnd the Chinese people, not the government -- the Chinese people are ones that are driving that demand. And it's a concern that we are seeing elephants -- we're seeing rhinos being threatened every day, and we all should be concerned, but do recognize that the efforts that we make on giant panda have been audited by us, by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and others such that every dollar that we put in is going into conservation to protect not just the giant panda but many, many species in the Tibetan Plateau. And a lot of people, a lot of animals have benefited.
NNAMDIKathleen, thank you very much for your call. Let's talk about some of the big new exhibits at the zoo and what changes we'll see coming to them starting with the American Trail exhibit, that $42 million exhibit reopened on Labor Day after a three-year renovation. One likes to think that one is on the West Coast when one walks through that exhibit, but there's a lot more going on in the exhibit than just watching sea lions splashing around. Tell us a little bit about what visitors experience and how it plays into conservation efforts at the zoo.
KELLYWell, you're absolutely right, Kojo. A lot of the exhibit does invoke the American West, the American West Coast where the pinnipeds, our seals, our seal lions are thriving. We upgraded the facility such that they can have either fresh or saltwater which we're learning is important to their overall health. But more importantly, this facility was also upgraded such that it uses a minimal amount of water, energy efficient.
KELLYWe think it's equivalent of LEED gold certified, but it provides a great experience and a great opportunity for parents to teach their children about conservation here on our country. Almost all these species represent a conservation success -- the great wolf, the American beaver, which was almost extirpated from Maryland 100 years ago -- to see up close, the bald eagle. These great icons of American are there for parents to talk to their kinds about why the endangered species act as important, why we should conserve wild places, wild spaces right here in our own country.
NNAMDIYou're adding five new seals to the exhibit at the end of this month. How do you prepare animals for that kind of a transition socially and physically?
KELLYThat's a great question. The -- our keepers are expert at, first, bringing animals through quarantine to make sure that they're -- they are not picking up or getting a condition that would endanger them or the other animals. But there's an extensive amount of training that goes on, and the animals are getting ready for their environment.
KELLYThey're doing well, but for example, the first couple of days, they're disoriented. We watch them carefully. But they love this new facility. And actually two of the seals are daughters of Silky, our elderly grey seal who's there. So we can't wait to reintroduce Silky back to her daughters.
NNAMDICan we see all of these animals out on display during the cold winter months?
KELLYSoon the five seals will be out by the end of this month and you'd be able to see them. But yes, they absolutely love this weather. They're representative of their cousins on the west coast of Oregon and California.
NNAMDIHere is Elaine in Middleburg, Va. Elaine, you're on the air. Go ahead please.
ELAINEHello. I would like -- I had my comment about the wolves. I was on the trail the other day, and it's very beautiful. It's very interesting, only that there are female wolves. Wolves live in a pack. Now, are you planning to extend? But I know they need more area. And what is the story behind the wolves? Also, the wolves are having a very, very bad time. They've been removed from the Endangered Species Act.
ELAINENow, they're being gassed. They're being eliminated by airplanes. They're being trapped. And I believe the zoo could perhaps give a little bit more information to the public about what is happening to the zoo or to the wolves. They were reintroduced, and now they are being eliminated again. Could you please comment on that?
KELLYWell, first, we are happy with the two females that we have. We have the capability of handling more the -- so but we'll be opportunistic about bringing on more wolves. We want these animals to be comfortable. And you're right. They have settled in very well and are loving their exhibit, and they have plenty of room there. But we do have room for more.
KELLYBut, Elaine, you make a great point, and it's a place for discussions to begin, is that when you see the beauty of these animals, we're asked -- it's an opportunity for all of us here in Washington and all visitors to the zoo to ask questions about what is the status of wolves in the wild? Why were they endangered? Why were they taken off? We find that parents have a wonderful opportunity to have a discussion.
KELLYWe could say the same thing about the bald eagle, critically endangered animal that -- the bald eagle that we have at the zoo is -- cannot fly, was injured at birth, but it allows a chance for a dialogue. We certainly -- our website, on our social media, Facebook and Twitter, we talk about these issues and how they link back to those.
KELLYWe're not in the business of making political decisions, but we are in the business of educating people about the plight of endangered or threatened species like the gray wolf, like the bald eagle, like other species on the American trail. We want to be a place to convene discussions about what is best. What is the best policy for our animals here in this country and abroad?
NNAMDIElaine, thank you very much for your call. You mentioned research earlier. For listeners who don't know, the zoo has a large campus in Front Royal, Va. There are a lot of changes going on there, especially for students at George Mason University. Tell us about the program and the new facility you opened in the fall.
KELLYThat's right, Kojo. You know that we have almost 5 square miles, 3,200 acres out in Front Royal, Va., a former military base that in the '70s was converted to research and breeding of endangered species. And that area, that facility, part of the zoo, the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, is thriving. And the latest investment we made out there is a terrific joint venture with George Mason University where we built 60 rooms, 60 dorm rooms, and a education facility that's world-class, again LEED Gold certified.
KELLYBut most importantly, it's a place to convene undergraduates, graduates and professionals to talk about conservation biology and the problems that we as -- that we can address through both policy and breeding and biology, where we can study endocrinology and train people on how we can save species in this country and around the world.
KELLYIt's a terrific facility. We're open one weekend every year, the Fall Conservation Festival. We encourage our FONZ members to come out and take a look at this terrific new facility that's really training the next generation.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue our conversation with Dennis Kelly, director of the Smithsonian's National Zoo, and invite your calls, 800-433-8850. What is your favorite exhibit at the National Zoo? What do you think could improve a visit to the zoo? 800-433-8850. Send us a tweet @kojoshow or email to firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. Our guest is Dennis Kelly, director of the Smithsonian's National Zoo, and you can call us at 800-433-8850. Are you a panda cam watcher? Have social media changed the way you keep up with news from our nation's zoos? Anyone who came to the National Zoo in December might have noticed another very cool new feature: a solar-powered carousel with hand-carved animals. Tell us about this ride and how it runs.
KELLYThat's right, Kojo. The Speedwell Foundation approached us and said, how can we help make the zoo better, more engaging for families and actually make it more sustainable? We did the research. You know, we are a Olmsted park. We were actually designed by Frederick Law Olmsted. And our research indicated that about 80 percent of the Olmsted parks had a carousel, and 80 percent of the top zoos in America have carousels.
KELLYAnd we know that from our research that our zoo is -- can be a little more fun for little kids, and so we put in a solar-powered carousel that's hand-carved here in America and all out of sustainable basswood. But one of the fun things is all the animals are modeled -- almost all the animals are modeled after an animal at our zoo. So little -- the little elephant is modeled after our elephant when he was a young boy and so on and so forth. But it's proven to be enormously popular. In the first 30 days through ZooLights, we've had 30,000 people ride the carousel.
NNAMDIThe lines have been quite long for that carousel. It's $3 a ticket. Do you hope this will be an extra revenue generator for the zoo, especially during these rocky fiscal times in the government?
KELLYWe do know that it's going to help offset some of our costs in that it will contribute to not only a fun experience, but all that money will go back into supporting the animals in conservation. And you're exactly right. We cannot depend upon ever-increasing grants from Congress and from the American people. This is a small way that we can begin to pay our own way through fun things like ZooLights or like the Conservation Carousel.
NNAMDISpeaking of money matters, one cannot help but notice that the food at the zoo seems to have improved significantly lately. Is the zoo going gourmet?
KELLYThe zoo is going gourmet. We looked at the best way to provide food. We knew from our research that people in Washington were not happy with the food options they were getting. So we actually turned to a local partner, Sodexo, which is based right here in Maryland, and they have come in and made an enormous difference on the quality of the food, and they're going to invest a lot more over the next two years. But Sodexo has been a great partner.
KELLYYou know, Kojo, we do a great job taking care of animals, doing research, doing conservation, great partners like the Friends of the National Zoo who operate our gift shop, and Sodexo, who operates food at American University and other places, was a great partner. So come try the food, again, for the first time at the National Zoo.
NNAMDISince we're talking money and how the zoo gets it, the zoo gets about 77 percent of its budget from the government. Let's talk about how the fiscal crisis might be affecting you. How has it impacted the National Zoo and your plans moving forward?
KELLYIt's a great question. Our budget has been flat for about two years now. We're looking at third-year flat budgets. And anybody who runs an organization, a for-profit or nonprofit, knows that when your budgets are flat, it's hard to make progress. So one of the things we've done is do things like put in a carousel that will generate some revenue. The other is to make sure that we know that our job is to do research and to make breakthroughs in animal care.
KELLYWe can also sell -- through our friends at FONZ, the Friends of the National Zoo -- more stuffed panda bears, more great food, which will help offset those costs. And then finally, our scientists are getting grants to new research. You know, about a third of our staff, about a third of our budget goes towards research and conservation.
NNAMDIYou get close to 9 percent of your budget from private donations. How have those fared over the past four years or so?
KELLYYou know, we're actually seeing an increase in our donations, in our gifts. We have great supporters. We have a great story to tell is that by supporting your National Zoo, you're making a difference in biodiversity, in protecting animals around the world. But we can show great results, for example, saving frogs both in United States and in Central America.
KELLYWe actually just discovered at the National Zoo the chytrid fungus that's killing about a third of all frog species. And it's those kinds of results, Kojo, that are resonating with donors. They're seeing a return on their investments, in their philanthropic investments.
NNAMDIWe've been temporarily pulled back from the so-called fiscal cliff, but we now have three, well, many cliffs staring us in the face, including a March deadline on legislation to fund the government. What happens at the National Zoo when the national government shuts down?
KELLYYou know, we haven't had a shutdown for very long, and I hope we don't have a shutdown coming forward. But when we -- there is a shutdown, about half of our people still have to come to work. The animals have to be fed. We still have to buy food and medicine for them. The veterinarians and the nutritionists still have to work to keep those animals healthy when you have a living collection.
KELLYSo during a shutdown, unfortunately, people don't get to enjoy the animals, but the keepers still have to work. They're considered emergency personnel under the federal guidelines. But it's very difficult to continue that work during a shutdown.
NNAMDICould workers volunteer to come to work without pay?
KELLYNo. Unfortunately, they cannot. Under federal guidelines, it's -- during a shutdown, no one can volunteer. Only emergency personnel can operate the zoo.
NNAMDIWe got a tweet from Macy here, who says, "I used to ride my bike to the zoo and just read a book at the ape house. I love those guys." And an email from Emily, which said, "What's with that sad, lonely, little horse? He needs a friend and a nicer pad."
KELLYI presume we're talking about the Przewalski's horse. There's a pair of them, Przewalski's horse. There is a pair of them, and there is a bigger herd out at Front Royal where we've been breeding and reintroducing those animals for a number of decades. But those animals actually in that paddock are very comfortable. But they are represented -- they're a little older, and they love the smaller space. But being from Mongolia, they actually love to be outside in this kind of cool weather.
NNAMDIMany of us remember the old, dated elephant house that was the go-to place to see these huge beasts. As of March, its makeover will be complete. How have you redesigned it?
KELLYThe elephant house, the old 1930s elephant house that was 90 percent humans and 10 percent animals -- and not just elephants but hippo and giraffe and rhino -- has now been redesigned and re-engineered to be 90 percent elephants and 10 percent humans and with the latest and greatest thinking about how animals can thrive in our environment.
KELLYSo, for example, the interior will have an all-sand floor, four feet of sand geothermally heated, LEED Gold certified with passive cooling. It'll be a great facility where humans can see elephants in the -- in an environment where they have a lot of space and freedom to go inside, outside. Kojo, they'll even have their own shower where they can choose to water themselves as they would in range countries.
NNAMDIIt includes a LEED-certified elephant barn. This is a LEED-certified barn we're talking about here?
NNAMDIWhat kind of an expansion is this for your elephant herd in terms of roaming space?
KELLYThey are -- we have taken 15 acres of the zoo and converted it to space for the elephants. Of that, five acres is dedicated just to roaming, but it's a complex space. For example, we built an elephant trek, which the animals use -- the elephants use now. Think of it as a stair master for elephants. It's a quarter of a mile track that goes up five stories, and the elephants love it.
KELLYKandula, our young 10-year-old male, loves to run up the trail and then take his time coming down. But this trail, which is semi-private, is one example of what we're doing to maintain the health and enrichment in mental welfare of these animals while we study them, so we can save their cousins in the wild.
NNAMDISeems to be a lot of space for just three elephants. So what does all this new space mean for expanding your elephant herd?
KELLYWhat a great question. We're in the process now of discussing -- eventually, we'll have between eight and 10 animals. And the animals that we'll be adding to the herd, we hope to have here within the next year, and so an exciting herd. You know, Kojo, we do a lot of work on elephant disease, on elephant endocrinology, on elephant reproduction, on elephant communication.
KELLYAnd that herd is going to be necessary not only for their social welfare, but to allow us to continue our research on things like artificial insemination, which may be necessary to protect these species as they are under such threat in Southeast Asia.
NNAMDIHere now is Louise in Fairfax, Va. Louise, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
LOUISEThank you so much, Kojo. My concern, Director Kelly, is that elephants need far more room to wander. That's why you have the elephant sanctuary in Tennessee. And then what about the tigers and lions and -- I haven't been to your zoo for many years 'cause I can't stand to see animals in cages. But in any case, what about meeting their social needs more representative on a scale where -- I understand you don't have enough land where you are in D.C.
LOUISEBut we have a lot of islands around the Potomac where you could take some of those islands and put some of the animals, and then have the people come in boats and see everything by cameras. And, you know, to meet the social needs and the -- 'cause I understand elephants need about 50 acres a day minimum in the wild, which I have seen them when I lived in India.
LOUISEAnd so that's a big concern for me. And I understand that from what you just said, you're expanding their needs. But it's still a very, very small space for an elephant. And what about the tigers, the lions and other animals that are social and need a lot of space?
KELLYWell, thank you, Louise, for your question. First, the research on how much space animal needs, elephants need varies by their needs -- by the actual environmental conditions. The work that's been done in both Africa and Asia indicate that where there is a food source, there is far less roaming. Where there is need for them to roam is when they are starving.
KELLYAnd that we see often in Africa where elephants will starve to death because they are searching for food or water. We've seen, on the other hand, in Malaysia, Thailand, where we do a lot of work and where we actually do radio cowering and tracking, that elephants that have a good food source, good water source will stay within an area, a much, much smaller area. The research continues on.
KELLYWe -- our GIS unit is doing groundbreaking research on the effects of translocation of elephants. And we find -- for example, researchers just published that elephants that are translocated will come right back to the spot and stay within the handful of acres where they are. So that research is ongoing. With regard to your idea about tigers and lions, again, please come to see the zoo. There are no cages at your National Zoo.
KELLYOur tigers and lions are in environments where they are thriving, where their cortisol levels, which we monitor, are good. What a great idea you have, though, for -- to take an island or a place. Do recognize we have Front Royal where we have vast areas for big herd management, where we are successfully breading scimitar-horned oryx and Przewalski's horse and other species, like the cheetah, where they need a lot of room to breed and mate.
NNAMDILouise, thank you very much for your call. We're almost out of time, but you have two new residents at the zoo that give a lot of people the heebie jeebies. Your animal residents don't seem to like to go near them. Tell us about the griffon vultures you received from the Fort Wayne Children Zoo.
KELLYOur new vultures are a wonderful way for us to teach children and families about the total ecosystem and how important a healthy intact ecosystem is so that an animal like the vulture, who's actually exhibited with the scimitar-horned oryx and the dama gazelle -- and they co-exist.
NNAMDII was about to ask, they getting along?
KELLYThey get along. They get along. There was a little nervousness at first. But even the young dama gazelles that were born there now seem to actually appreciate having the vultures in their exhibit. But again, it allows a conversation between parent and child, between people, about the importance of intact ecosystems and how a vulture is actually part of that ecosystem.
NNAMDIDennis Kelly is director of the Smithsonian's National Zoo. Unfortunately, we're out of time. There is so much more we'd like to discuss. You going to come back?
KELLYI'll come back, Kojo.
NNAMDIThank you so much for coming this time. And thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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