October 18, 2006

Smithsonian’s Zoo Opens New Asia Trial

WASHINGTON -- The Smithsonian Institution's National Zoo opened its new Asia Trial and giant panda habitat Tuesday, the first phase of a complete makeover of the zoo's exhibits.

Seven Asian species now call the $53 million renovated space home. Besides the zoo's three popular giant pandas, the exhibit includes a larger, more prominent space for sloth bears, fishing cats, red pandas, clouded leopards, a Japanese giant salamander and Asian small-clawed otters.

"Visitors are treated to up close views," said Susan Ades, head of exhibit design for the zoo. "You can see, hear, touch and even smell the zoo's science."

Many of the exhibits on the nearly quarter-mile Asia Trail were designed based on observations of animal behavior by zoo scientists, officials said. Because the giant pandas enjoy the water, their new home includes a waterfall and shallow pools, curator Lisa Stevens said. There are more rocks and trees to climb, and fog machines that help simulate the pandas' natural environment in China.

Panda cub Tai Shan is expected to return to China after his second birthday next summer under an agreement that brought pandas back to the zoo. But veterinarians hope to let the panda parents breed again in the spring.

Zoo director John Berry said the Asia Trail is the most significant improvement at the park in nearly 40 years. It comes at a time when the pandas have helped draw crowds expected to reach a record 3 million people this year.

"This is a giant leap forward for the National Zoo," said Berry, who joined the staff about a year ago after the Asia Trail construction was underway. "Our goal is to renovate the entire zoo from top to bottom and bring everything up to Asia Trail standards."

The 10-year makeover of the 117-year-old animal park would cost roughly $500 million, Berry said. The zoo hopes Congress will provide half the funds, with private donations covering the remainder. Berry said an $8 million gift for panda conservation from Fujifilm, the zoo's largest benefactor, helped spur support for the Asia Trail project among federal lawmakers.

The next phase in the zoo's renovation is a $60 million expanded four-acre enclosure for Asian elephants, with a groundbreaking expected in spring 2007, Berry said.

The zoo has scheduled a special event for the public to meet the Asia Trail's design and construction team this Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.


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