News & Politics

Will the National Zoo Change Its Advance Reservation Entry Pass System?

Eleanor Holmes Norton has asked the zoo to reevaluate policies that may be limiting visitor access.

Giant Panda Mei Xiang | Photo courtesy of the National Zoo

DC Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton is asking the National Zoo to reevaluate—and possibly change—its entry policy. On Tuesday, she wrote a letter to the zoo’s director expressing concern over the current system, which generally requires visitors who are not paid zoo members to reserve passes in advance.

Only four Smithsonian Institutions require passes or tickets: the National Zoo, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the National Air and Space Museum, and the Cooper Hewitt Design Museum in New York City. 

The entry pass system began after the zoo re-opened following pandemic closures. According to NBC4, zoo officials previously have said that the passes are used to help manage capacity and are not a Covid precaution.

In her letter, Norton writes that the current pass requirement may be limiting access for would-be zoo visitors, “especially for people who cannot get online, whether because they do not have a computer or smartphone or are unable to use such devices, for people who want to spontaneously visit and for people who have been led to believe by the website that entry passes are available only online.”

Norton also writes that her staff has been told that some passes are set aside for visitors who arrive in person without reserved passes. The zoo’s website states that a limited amount of same-day passes are offered at entrances for visitors without access to the online system

Last January, the Smithsonian announced a modified schedule that included reducing the zoo’s days of operations for a limited period of time. According to the Smithsonian, the modified schedule allows for the “reposition[ing of] key staff across its museums as needed while ensuring that museums remain open to the public each day of the week.”

Acknowledging that the zoo faces a volunteer shortage and that the pass system may ultimately be deemed necessary, Norton’s letter also asks the zoo to “clarify to the public and remind staff and volunteers that that there are some passes reserved for those without online passes.”

The congresswoman requested a written response from the zoo by January 20. Contacted by Washingtonian, a spokesperson for the zoo declined to comment but said the institution will provide a copy of its response to Norton at that time.  

Katie Kenny
Editorial Fellow