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The National Zoo is still planning to change its hours at the beginning of next year, despite the desperate pleas of local residents on a MoveOn.org petition.

The anticipated shift on Jan. 1 has upset some early-morning exercisers who walk, run, or bike on the Zoo’s grounds before work and their other daily routines. Despite this, the Zoo seems to be doubling down on its choice to open at 8 a.m. instead of 6.

“Several mornings a week, neighbors and I walk through the Zoo as soon as it opens, as we have for more than 20 years,” writes Kaaren Holum, the petition’s author, who says she lives in Mount Pleasant. “The fitness and health of D.C. residents will be undermined by the loss of this safe and beautiful place to exercise outdoors.”

The zoo’s grounds will also close one hour earlier at night under the changes, at 7 p.m. (5 p.m. in the winter) as opposed to 8 p.m. (6 p.m. in the winter). The exhibit buildings which house some of its animals will open an hour earlier, at 9 a.m., and stay accessible until their current closing time, at 6 p.m. (in the winter, they’ll close at 4 p.m.).

“I love to zoo early morning with my little girls,” a petition-signee identified as Sean Murphy writes. “We visit at least once a month arriving at 730. The animals are so active. It’s a magical time to visit and show my daughters the wonders of nature.” “Please also keep it open longer in the evenings!” a signee identified as Susan Boa comments.

Asked to respond to the petition, which has already received more than 420 signatures after it went live on Dec. 8, Jen Zoon, a spokesperson for the Zoo, says the changes were implemented in part to keep visitors and staff safe. “We know this is a significant and upsetting change for our close neighbors who have benefited by having early morning and late evening access to our property, but we hope they understand our commitment to safety and security,” she writes. “It’s imperative that the Smithsonian remains vigilant and up-to-date with best practices.”

Zoon goes on to explain that there’s an increased risk of safety incidents during the fall and winter months, when “it is dark and potentially hazardous on our pathways.” (The Smithsonian can’t install lighting everywhere because it could disturb the natural wake- and sleep-cycles of its animals.) Crashes may occur between pedestrians or cyclists and staffers in vehicles caring for animals while it’s dark, she adds. “Our animal houses will open one hour earlier giving visitors more opportunities to see animals, which is the primary reason people come to the National Zoo.”

You can read the Zoo’s full statement to City Desk below:

Zoo Director Dennis Kelly made the decision to change the Zoo’s public visiting hours after taking into consideration the safety and security of Zoo guests, staff, and animals. We know this is a significant and upsetting change for our close neighbors who have benefited by having early morning and late evening access to our property, but we hope they understand our commitment to safety and security. It’s imperative that the Smithsonian remains vigilant and up-to-date with best practices.

While we have avoided accidents to date, the risk for something serious to happen is too great for us to ignore. In the fall/winter evening hours, it is dark and potentially hazardous on our pathways. Moreover, we cannot install more artificial lighting on all of the pathways because we aim to replicate the natural light cycle of our animals, ensuring the natural biological rhythms and behaviors of animals are minimally affected.

Additionally, our staff and vendors must be able to move freely around the park in vehicles. From animal food deliveries and vet appointments to supply drops and grounds maintenance, this critical early morning work ensures that the Zoo runs smoothly and is prepared for visitors.

The dim lighting, coupled with vehicles moving up and down Olmsted Walk, prompted us to be proactive to prevent any accident happening on grounds. Opening later and closing earlier directly addresses these safety concerns.

We know commuters use the North Road as a shortcut—although it is not a public road. The Rock Creek Park bike path will remain open and will not be affected by this change. Our animal houses will open one hour earlier giving visitors more opportunities to see animals, which is the primary reason people come to the National Zoo.

Update 2:40 p.m.: D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton sent a letter to the National Zoo yesterday, stating her displeasure at its decision to open the grounds later “without holding a public meeting beforehand.”

“I will not have my constituents offered the opportunity to provide input only after the zoo has already made its decision,” Norton states. “Informing residents of what you intend to do after the fact is autocratic, antidemocratic, and personally offensive to me as the congresswoman who represents the District.”

Photo by Darrow Montgomery