The Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington D.C., is known for its giant pandas and other exotic animals.
But a different kind of animal-themed attraction has captivated visitors since opening this past November.
At first glance, the zoo's Speedwell Foundation Conservation Carousel
looks like any ordinary merry-go-round.
But this latest draw at the popular zoological park is special in two ways.
First, it's solar powered; one of only two carousels in the world which run on sunlight.
Chuck Fillah, the zoo’s associate director of planning, says the idea of solar power came about because the zoo wanted to send a message about conservation.
Solar panels on the roof power the National Zoo's Conservation Carousel, one of only two worldwide which runs on sunlight. (VOA/J. Taboh)
The entire south part of the carousel’s rooftop is covered with 162 solar panels.
“Each one generates so many watts of electricity,” says Fillah, “and the power that’s generated during the day by the sun runs the carousel.”
Excess energy captured by the solar panels is routed to the zoo’s grid to power lights for the buildings and animal exhibits.
The carousel’s ability to run on the sun’s rays impresses young visitors like 10-year-old Devin.
“I think it’s great that it’s solar-powered because it shows that you don’t need all this technology and man-made energy to have a fun ride,” Devin says.
The carousel's other special feature is the 56 hand-carved and painted figures representing creatures from all over the world.
About 40 animals depicted on the carousal live in exhibits at the zoo or at its research facility in nearby Virginia.
They include many endangered species such as the giant panda, Komodo dragon and the ever popular cheetah.
The African lion, endangered Sumatran Tiger and Western lowland gorilla are also popular, on and off the carousel.
Chuck Fillah says the idea behind the carousel was to raise awareness about the plight of endangered animals and their disappearing habitats.
“We put the animals together in four different habitats,” he says, “because animals and habitats are two things that really need to be thought about in conservation. So we have animals grouped in grasslands, oceans, desert and forest.”
There are also two custom-designed handicap-accessible chariots.
The zoo's conservation message seems to resonate with visitor Abdelrhman Elabbasi, 11.
“A lot of these animals are endangered and they might become extinct,” he says, “but what they’re doing right now is helping them not become extinct.”
The Murchake sisters from nearby Virginia, agree.
“I think that’s really cool because it brings awareness to the animals,” says Fiona, who is 12. “And we get to see what animals are endangered and maybe we can look in a little deeper and see how we can help those animals.”
Fillah says children learning about the zoo while enjoying themselves is what their conservation message is all about.
“Our hope for the carousel at Smithsonian's National Zoo is to have people have fun and learn about animals and their habitats,” he says. “To make a connection about nature, and to go away maybe thinking about something they learned here.”
He says he’s been contacted by a number of zoos interested in creating conservation carousels of their own.