Family Day at National Zoo in D.C. Marred by Violence

Sam P.K. Collins | 4/23/2014, 3 p.m.
Thousands entered the Smithsonian National Zoo in Northwest on Easter Monday for the African-American Family Day Celebration before gunshots rang ...
Both the young and the young at heart participated in the hula hoop contest on Easter Monday at the National Zoo in Northwest. Photo by Mark Mahoney

Debra Simpson entered the Smithsonian National Zoo in Northwest eager to pass on a family tradition that her parents introduced her to as a youngster.

Simpson, along with her husband and two grandchildren, caught a glimpse of the monkeys, elephants and reptiles not long after the zoo opened. They later enjoyed some sticky, gooey cotton candy and continued their stroll along the curvy pathway.

"I usually come early because [altercations with the teenagers] happen in the evening and I [want to avoid] the confusion," said Simpson, 60, a nurse from Temple Hills, Md. "The zoo is free so everyone gets an opportunity to come here on Easter Monday. My children are working adults so they couldn’t come but I thought my grandchildren should experience it."

Hours after Simpson’s family left the zoo grounds, gunshots rang out across the street from the front gates of the zoo, causing authorities to evacuate the facility shortly after activities for the African-American Family Day Celebration ended. The Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) confirmed that two men suffered injuries.

Nearly 16,000 people from across the D.C. metropolitan area had already filed through the black wrought-iron gates of the National Zoo when the incident unfolded on Monday, April 21.

"We were looking at the wildcats when we heard a couple of shots," said Morgan Gregory*, 22.

She counted among the thousands of visitors escorted out of the zoo by MPD late Monday afternoon.

"[All of a sudden] helicopters appeared in the sky and we saw police officers running toward the entrance. When we left the zoo, they wouldn’t let us walk toward the Woodley Park Metro Station so we had to [hike up the street] to the next station," said Gregory, who lives in Hyattsville, Md.

Monday’s incident followed a brawl in 2011 during which a teenager suffered six stab wounds and a flash mob looted nearby businesses along Connecticut Avenue. A shooting at the zoo’s front gates in 2000 left seven people injured.

Every year, families from across the D.C. metropolitan area and country visit the zoo on Easter Monday and participate in a host of activities that include face painting, an Easter egg hunt, and rides on a miniature train throughout the day.

"We celebrate [Easter Monday at the National Zoo] with activities for all families to enjoy," said Annalisa Meyer, communications manager at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo. "[People] can learn more about our living collection and the work we do day in and day out to save [numerous] species. Families are [also] likely to see the character ‘Easter Panda’ and have the chance to get their photos taken [with him]."

Byron Ayers beamed as he watched his friend’s son dig through a bundle of hay during the Easter egg hunt. He said that he appreciated the combination of events and exhibits that the zoo offered on what he considered the perfect spring day.

"We decided to come here instead of the White House," said Ayers, 35, a business owner who lives in Silver Spring, Md. "You get to see the animals and the Easter festivities. It’s the perfect combination. This is my first time here but it's something that we will come back to next year. [The zoo provides] a family-friendly atmosphere."

The African-American Family Celebration kicked off in 1891 as an alternative for black families that could not participate in the Easter Egg Hunt at the White House. It has since become a tradition for many, attracting thousands of guests who enjoy the variety of exhibits and activities the zoo offers free of charge.

"The National Zoo is a great resource," said Claire Sheth, 43, of Lexington, Mass., who took part in Monday’s festivities with her husband and four children during a weekend visit to the District. "We get to see animals from all over the world and hear the message of conservation. It’s critically important that it remains free because then it’s open to everyone."

* Morgan Gregory is a pseudonym.