But despite its vaunted reputation, the National Zoo had been going downhill for years, reports correspondent Joie Chen for The Saturday Early Show.
It didn't have enough money to keep up the animal collections, much less their habitats.
Then came a spate of unusual and, in some cases, inexcusable deaths. Among them: red pandas who ate rat poison mistakenly placed into their enclosure, a zebra named Buumba that died of hypothermia and malnutrition, a bald eagle attacked in its own cage by a wild animal, and prairie dogs who were devoured by rampant rats.
But now, with an infusion of money from Congress, the nation's zoo is aiming to rebuild and bring new animals and more visitors back.
Curator Bill Xanten likens himself to a modern-day Noah. He's pushing hard to add fresh animals to the zoo's aging animal collection.
Thirteen years ago, more than 6,000 animals lived at the National Zoo. The number has dwindled to less than half that today.
New animals in the collection include:
Xanten worked his way up from gardener before retiring eight years ago. But at the height of the zoo's most turbulent time in decades, he jumped at the chance to come back.
He cites Jiao, the first red panda at the zoo since the rat poisoning incident, as a symbol of the zoo's effort to turn things around.
"She's a sign of rebirth, so to speak, for a lot of things at the zoo," he says.