WASHINGTON - A lot of federal managers are fretting about the sequester, the deep budget cuts that could take effect next week. But very few of those managers manage man-eaters. Craig Saffoe does, and he knows that even if $85 billion in federal spending gets sliced this year, he has to keep his lions and tigers at the National Zoo fed.
"We can't just put these guys in a warehouse," said Saffoe, standing on the safe side of a steel mesh wall as Naba, a 300-pound lioness, rumbles like a restless volcano a few inches away. Two other massive females prowl and growl, muscles climbing over one another beneath their tawny coats. Naba and friends are not the kind of federal denizens you want suffering during major cutbacks.
"Our collection is a living collection," said Saffoe, a curator of the zoo's big cats. "They need to be cared for every day, no matter what is happening above our heads."
The National Zoo is always a standout during the budget battles that periodically rock the vast constellation of federal agencies. Although not the most vital to national security or human welfare, the zoo and the Smithsonian Institution it belongs to are among the most visible and popular faces of federal Washington. More than two million visitors a year come to stare at the animals, and when disruptions loom, from snowstorms to power politics, zoo officials get an earful.
"People really want to be sure that the animals are going to be cared for," said zoo spokeswoman Pamela Baker-Masson. "We hear it all the time when things like this are in the news - phone calls, social media. They really want to be reassured."
Be reassured, zoo lovers. The cats will get their beef, the pandas their bamboo, and the seals their herring, and all from familiar fingers. Most of the zoo's 110 keepers, biologists, and curators are rated as essential personnel in the event of government shutdowns and furloughs.
"We will never compromise on human safety, and we'll never compromise animal welfare," promised Dennis Kelly, director of the National Zoo, which has a $50 million budget and employees 450 people. "These people are incredibly devoted to these animals."
Officials are scrambling to make sure the care keeps flowing, even as the sequester threatens to put the squeeze on other functions, including education, research, and administration.
The Smithsonian is bracing for at least a 5 percent budget cut, which would amount to $40 million if the cuts weren't restored before September, according to Linda St. Thomas, the institution's chief spokeswoman. While the Pentagon has announced possible furloughs of up to 800,000 civilian defense workers, the Smithsonian plans to absorb the sequester mainly through freezing hiring, reducing training, and delaying new construction equipment.
Some zoo projects, such as the planned acquisition of cheetahs for the research facility in Front Royal, Va., may be reconsidered, according to Kelly. But with five curator jobs and numerous keeper slots vacant from three years of frozen budgets, the sequester could nudge the zoo closer to what Kelly calls the doomsday scenario: closing one of its expensive major exhibits.
"We're to the bone," Kelly said. "I will never compromise on animal welfare or human safety, but we're now at the point where we'd have to lop off a whole module."
Which would go? The elephants that cost up to $100,000 a year to keep? The beloved pandas, which attract thousands of visitors? Other modules include the Reptile House, the Great Apes collection, Big Cats, and the new American Trail.
"Please don't make me choose among my children!" pleaded Kelly, declining to speculate on which exhibit would be most at risk. "Those collections are big and stable and took years to build. If, God forbid, we have to shut down lions and tigers, it would take more than a year to find homes for them. And then if the money was found, it would probably take three years to start it up again."
The zoo knows what it will face if it moves to shutter an exhibit. Two years ago, Kelly announced the end of the Kid's Farm, a popular barn full of domestic livestock that didn't add much to the zoo's research on endangered species. The outcry was instant, and the farm remains open thanks to a five-year grant from State Farm insurance.