National Zoo revamps ZooLights security plan following November chaos

Neighbors of the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and D.C. business owners attended a community meeting Monday night to share their concerns about the chaos that broke out during last year’s holiday ZooLights festival.

A rowdy group of young adults overran the dazzling annual light display on Nov. 30, 2019, starting a fight in a frozen yogurt store and sparking a panic when a pyrotechnic was set off in a zoo bathroom. Gunfire later injured two teenagers at a nearby intersection.

That incident led to a community call for more security at the ZooLights festival, which for years has been open to the public with no screening at the gates, unlike Smithsonian museums on the National Mall.

D.C. officials attended the meeting to share their plans for increased security at the next ZooLights.

Kevin McMahon owns Frozenyo, across the street from the zoo’s main gates on Connecticut Avenue. Video posted to social media from the night of Nov. 30 shows a group of juveniles rushing McMahon’s storefront, injuring him and his wife.

“Troublemakers were coming straight for the businesses,” McMahon said. “In the 11 years we’ve been up here, there’s never been trouble for ZooLights. Can the unexpected happen again? Absolutely.”

Council member Mary Cheh said this year, the city will be implement changes including better training and more communication with D.C. police, who were criticized for not having a larger presence near storefronts that night.

“If they anticipate a large event, they should, ahead of time, even without an alert, have extra personnel, particularly along the stores,” she added.

Pamela Baker-Masson, a spokeswoman for the National Zoo, said they did launch screening procedures to beef up security following the late November incident — but they’ve since pivoted in how they’ll approach security the next time around, which will include a new communication plan to allow for quicker response times from law enforcement.

“We have to be ready … we will better communicate with [D.C. police] as a result of talking directly to the watch commander, and they can send out the appropriate amount of police,” Baker-Masson said.

Melissa Howell

Melissa Howell joined WTOP Radio in March 2018 and is excited to cover stories that matter across D.C., as well as in Maryland and Virginia. 

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