Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Lions in Winter

There is something especially wonderful about being one of the few people strolling on a quiet city street early on a Sunday morning, or in an empty movie theater watching a weekday kiddie matinee, or at the zoo in the calm chill of January. It is the illusion of feeling as if the world just exists for you and your child.

At the Smithsonian National Zoological Park during less crowded visitation times just after the gates open or before close, especially on a winter's day, AS and I have observed the most remarkable animal behaviors. A drop in temperature seems to invigorate animals native to cooler climates, such as the Andean Spectacled Bears, and at dusk nocturnal animals begin to rouse from their daytime slumber. We have had the fortune of hearing the unmistakable whooping of acrobatic White-cheeked Gibbons and the howling of fox-like Maned Wolves and of seeing a deft Fishing Cat tap a paw into a pool of water to lure and catch its own meal. I watched breathlessly as an orangutan scaled a tower at the Great Ape House and traversed the O-line, the zoo's highwire Orangutan Transport System, directly above our vantage point on the Olmsted Trail, and AS beamed to behold six Asian Small-clawed Otters cavorting along the bank of a stream where they mostly pass their lives basking together in a charming heap.

Indoor exhibits, like the Reptile Discovery Center or the Small Mammal or Bird Houses, provide the perfect place to warm up. These exhibits and the animals that inhabit them tend to be smaller in size, so it is easier for small-fry to observe them more closely. Staff members and knowledgeable volunteers are happy to answer questions and encourage children to touch and interact with curious objects (such as plant seeds or fragments of bone, horn or fur) on display. You may also watch keepers feed the animals throughout the day. The daily schedule of activities and demonstrations on the zoo website lists animal feeding times for the minutest insects to the greatest mammals so you can plan your visit accordingly. Activity sheets, such as scavenger hunts and "Zoo-per Bingo", may be printed from the website ahead of time to help enrich your child's experience. In the Science Gallery adjacent to Amazonia, an exhibit highlighting species from the tropical rainforests of the Amazon River, children may emulate research scientists in the field and lab by viewing specimens through microscopes side-by-side with zoo staff conducting actual scientific research. Strollers are not permitted in some buildings due to space limitations, so pack light and bring your old umbrella stroller (not the fully-equipped SUV model you'll be anxious about leaving outside).

Outdoor exhibits are also built with the youngest zoo-goers in mind. The Great Cats enclosure features kid-size windows for better views of the lions and tigers. The Kids’ Farm provides opportunities to groom animals such as cows and donkeys in the Caring Corral. Small children may play in the Pizza Garden on a giant rubber pizza playground and learn about the origins of food. Watch in surreal delight as your tot crawls through an enormous olive, stacks larger-than-life mushroom slices and clambers up wedges of cheese like an ant at a picnic.

On Sundays from January to March, bring your family to National Zoo's Visitor Center Auditorium at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. for the Wild Side Stage performance series for children. These winter performances include "entertaining and educational shows by acclaimed, award-winning musicians, dancers, storytellers, and puppeteers from around the country" followed by special visits to animal houses to meet keepers and animals. Tickets are $7 for adults and children age two and older. Wee ones under age two are admitted free!

Enjoy Halloween by safely Trick-or-Treating together at Boo at the Zoo. Or celebrate the winter holiday season at the annual ZooLights event, an occasion to amble through the zoo after dark to experience dozens of colorful flashing light displays, animal exhibits and live entertainment.
Children especially love to see baby animals at the zoo. A highlight for us this past year was getting to know, Kibibi, the Western Lowland Gorilla born at the Great Ape House on January 10, 2009. The public was even invited to vote on her name. Information regarding animal arrivals, births and hatchings is updated on the website monthly. Some new arrivals to the zoo's animal family are raised at the Conservation and Research Center in Front Royal, Virginia, but photographs by the zoo's professional photographers and webcams trained on the babies are a welcome representative until the animals are ready for their big debut at the zoo.

I was dismayed to read a recent newspaper article in which parents residing outside the beltway resolved never to return to Washington, DC for their children's entertainment after spending $100 at the zoo in one day. What was intended to be a cheap daytrip for the cost-conscious parents became increasing expensive as they found themselves paying for parking, treating their family of four to lunch then ice cream and coffee at a restaurant, and lured to the call of the gift shop.

It is possible to spend $20 or less for a family of four if you plan ahead. Admission to the animal exhibits is always free, and public transportation to the zoo is cheaper than parking there and more convenient. The Woodley Park-Zoo metro station is a short walk to the main entrance on Connecticut Avenue. Pack a bag lunch; there are plenty of shaded picnic tables or sunny, grassy areas to spread out a blanket in the warmer months. During winter, benches indoors are a convenient spot for enjoying a PB&J sandwich and slurping a juice box with your child.

Joining Friends of the National Zoo (FONZ) is an initial investment of $60 for a Household (two or more people living at the same address) Membership but worthwhile if you plan to visit the zoo often and are eager to take advantage of free parking, 10% discounts in National Zoo stores, a complementary subscription to Smithsonian Zoogoer magazine and discounted tickets for special events. These include annual member events, previews of new exhibits, summer camps, classes and workshops, and Snore and Roar overnights. Snore and Roar overnights? Yes, from June to September you and your Mini-me can camp out under the stars listening to the roars of lions and tigers nearby! FONZ members also enjoy free or discounted admission to other zoos and aquariums nationwide.

Check out the online calendar and website to see when special events are scheduled. The zoo is open every day of the year, except December 25th. Animal exhibits are open from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. November to March and from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. April to October.

1 comment:

  1. More info for the stroller brigade...The Great Ape House, Bird House and Small Mammal House permit the use of strollers while touring the exhibits. The Reptile House and Invertebrate House do not; you must park your stroller outside.
    Also, the zoo has rental strollers if you prefer not to bring your own. More information abut stroller rentals is available on the zoo website:

    BTW, the National Zoo is one of the few in the country that has free admission to the animal exhibits. We are fortunate to live in this city where so many of the museums and parks are free!



Copyright 2009 Kristen Morse All Rights Reserved