News & Politics

It’s an Adorable Baby Animal Baby Boom at the National Zoo (Photos)

From tiny turtles and froglets to monkeys and cheetahs, it’s babies on board at the zoo, and we have the photos.

A cheetah cub and a newly hatched flamingo. Photographs by Andrew Propp.

Visitors might want to pack a few blue and pink ribbons for
their next trip to the National Zoo, where something of a baby
boom is happening. Animals typically make babies in the spring,
but spring of 2012 has been, well, more prolific. Between
the zoo’s Connecticut Avenue location and its Conservation
Biology Institute in Front Royal, Virginia, babies have been born
or hatched among almost 20 species, with more on the way. They
include everything from insects and anemones to a monkey and
two cheetahs. There’s also a flamingo, turtles, and poison

Most of the new arrivals are not on public display, but the zoo invited
The Washingtonian to come behind the scenes to
observe, admire, and photograph the babies. The experience was a
positive example of the benefits
of animals in captivity, especially those bred in the zoo
environment. What’s more, many, if not most, of the Washington newborns
get distributed to other zoos across the country for breeding
or to enhance existing populations.

Senior curator
Ed Bronikowski said many of the births were
the result of planned breeding—“all part of our program on sustainable
collections”—though he
did give some credit to the romantic possibilities of a “mild
winter and a nice warm spring.” He cited in particular the heron
population, which are wild but return to the zoo year after
year. “There are more than 300 this year,” he said. “Last year
there were about 125.”

With the exception of a baby howler monkey and three
gray rhea chicks, most of the new arrivals are kept in private and
to by zookeepers. The cheetah cubs in particular have received
a lot of attention, and deservedly so, because their births
were harrowing and their survival remarkable. According to the
zoo, the mortality rate for cheetah cubs born under normal
circumstances in human care is 20 percent.

The first cub, a male, was born April 23 at the Front
Royal facility. Veterinarians performed a C-section to deliver three
additional cubs, only one of which, a female, survived after
receiving three hours of intense treatment, including CPR, medications,
and massage, and then time in intensive care. The mother
abandoned them, which senior curator
Brandie Smith said is not entirely unusual for
a first-time mother under human care. In mid-May the two cubs were
moved to the National
Zoo, where they now receive three feedings a day but limited
human handling. If they are independent of human touch they will
adapt better to captivity. In time the male is expected to be
shipped to another zoo, while the National Zoo may keep the
female for breeding. Cheetahs are a “vulnerable” species;
reportedly no more than 10,000 live in the wild.

The public will be able to see these two babies later
in the summer, though no specific date has yet been set. “In a few weeks
they will get their vaccinations,” said Smith, adding that
“while things can still happen, now that they are eating solid
food I sleep better at night.” She said this is when they would
be in the most danger in the wild. “It’s safer for them in
the zoo.”

The baby howler monkey is on public view, clinging to
his mother’s neck or back, sharing food with her, as she scrambles from
branch to branch in their large two-room glass-enclosed cage.
Not only is the baby on view, but the public has been invited
to participate in choosing his name via
Facebook. There are four
choices—Sumaq, Orejas,
Nando, and Loki—and the voting ends Friday.

The rheas are a little more than two months old. While
hatched by their mother, it is the father who takes care of them,
to their zookeeper,
Sara Hallager. They are flightless, similar to
the ostrich, and native to South America; the National Zoo is one of
the few zoos in the
US that reliably breeds these birds, said Hallager as she stood
among the already tall birds and fed them pieces of shredded
kale. They were friendly, not in the least intimidated by
visitors or a clicking camera. They came right up to us and looked
us in the eye. Hallager guided us into the back rooms of the
Bird House to meet two babies who are not on public view, two-week-old
kori bustard chicks. These adorable birds like to nuzzle with a
feather duster when they aren’t scooting around at Hallager’s

All her “charges” have a doting zookeeper in Hallager,
but it’s clear (and understandable) that she has special affection
for the baby flamingo, hatched only a week ago, and which she
cradled in the palms of her hands after it received food from
a feeding tube. “Touch it,” she urged, and when I lightly
petted it with my finger the baby feathers felt like dense, soft
cotton. She set the bird down on a towel and it attempted a few
wobbly steps. “Come on, baby, you can do it,” she said to
the little ball of fluff while it stood for about five seconds
and then flopped down on its long legs. “It will start to get
color in two months,” she said, “but it won’t be fully pink for
two years.” The zoo’s flamingo population, interestingly,
is not having its own baby boom—just the opposite. Usually
there are about 20 eggs laid, but this year only the one. “It is
known to happen in flamingo flocks,” said Bronikowski. “They
just stop for one year. We don’t know why.”

While most of this year’s babies were planned, the
baby snakehead turtles were a “happy accident,” said Bronikowski. They
were born June 5 in a large aquatic exhibit where conditions
“trigger them to breed.” Still, he said, when biologists noticed
babies in the exhibit’s pool of water “it was kind of a
surprise,” and they were removed to a private growing area where they
can get strong and prepared to cope in the aquatic population.
The spiny stick insects are three months old and barely an
inch long. For the moment they live in a jar with branches,
where they blend in. They will grow to be four or five inches
long as adults, but their life span is not much more than a
year. They are native to Australia and survive on a vegetarian

In the category of small baby animals, the green and
black poison dart froglets may take the prize. It’s been only two weeks
since they emerged from the tadpole stage, and they are dwarfed
by a normal-size human hand. While poisonous in the wild due
to the bug diet they eat, they are not poisonous in captivity
because they are fed fat (and nontoxic) pinhead crickets and
fruit flies. As we photographed them, the babies jumped about,
full of energy and stunningly colorful.

The zoo takes great pride in its baby animal
population, not only because everyone loves baby animals, but also
because the
institution has an active program to ship young animals to
other zoos for breeding; the more babies born means more opportunity
to share, breed, and grow.

Every baby we saw and photographed will grow to many
times its infant size and in some instances, such as with the flamingo
and the kori bustard chicks, will look substantially different
in markings and features. The flamingo’s beak will turn down,
the kori’s head will become plumed and exotic, and the males
will grow to weigh as much as 35 pounds. It’s difficult to imagine
while looking at a squeaky little featherball that today is
lighter than air and only wants to play with its sibling and a
feather duster. And consider the baby cheetahs. We looked at
them over the low gate of a stable-like pen, where zoo staff
joined them to put out bowls of food, and to give them a ball
and a paper bag to play with. They will grow from their current
7 pounds to up to 77 pounds, and be able to leap and climb with

We will keep you posted on new births at the zoo and the dates when the babies in our slideshow here will go on public view.