I first visited the National Zoo in 1995 when living in Washington DC for three months while my then-boyfriend-now-husband was working as an intern. As a UK national, I was not employed for those three months so was footloose and fancy free during his work hours and could explore all over Washington DC and its suburbs – essentially anywhere the metro system or Shanks Pony could take me. I saw a lot of the city that summer, worked out where had the best water fountains (DC, certainly back then, had atrocious drinking water so this was very useful knowledge), and visited almost all of the major tourist attractions. One of these was National Zoo and I will state that back in 1995 I thought it was one of those zoos that needed to be closed down. The enclosures were too small and there was inadequate stimulus for the captive animals. I have an especially vivid memory of a condor being cramped in a cage so small I doubt it could fully extend its wings. It was pretty depressing. I went once and never returned.
My kids, however, were eager to visit the National Zoo and the fact that entry is free (yes, a zoo – usually one of the most expensive things a family can do – that was free!) persuaded us to give the National Zoo another visit 21 years on. I am very pleased to report that the zoo we visited this summer was almost unrecognisable from the one I had visited in 1995. The intervening two decades have evidently been spent on a great deal of remodelling and the zoo not only has a better flow and organisation to it but also has appropriate enclosures with stimulation for the animals. I was, therefore, free to enjoy our day at the zoo as guilt-free as it is possible to be when staring at captive animals.
The main driver for our visit to National Zoo was that my 10 year old is obsessed with pandas (and zebras but mainly pandas) and National Zoo presented an opportunity for him – for all of us actually – to see a real life panda for the first time. We, therefore, set off first on the Asia Trail. Our first encounter was with a Sloth Bear who was ambling about in his enclosure. I loved his funny lips and his shaggy hair. We also saw a brace of Fishing Cats, an endangered species. Both were snoozing and in their languid slumber looked precisely like our pet cats at home. One briefly lifted its head in feline contempt when a child (not one of mine) knocked on the glass and then it went straight back to sleep again. The nearby otters were much more alert and were racing around their enclosure as a pack. It seems likely they were awaiting feeding time as they were clearly trying to spot something and were being very vigilant. We had a bird’s eye view of the elephant enclosure just as they were being released into their playground and then we arrived at the panda area.
At first, the kids were a bit deflated. I think they expected to turn a corner and just see the big pandas all sitting around posing for them and instead they were having to scan a massive enclosure filled with trees, rocks and foliage. Mr Pict and I spotted one panda up a tree but the kids were having difficulty making it out. Lips were pouting. Then we went to view the interior enclosures and it was pandas galore. Our boys were fizzing with excitement and the 10 year old was about ready to explode with glee. One panda was curled up in a ball in a corner and the boys were already delighted. Then we moved to an adjacent area where a panda was flopped over a rock in what looked like a pretty uncomfortable repose. He would move from time to time in order to adjust his position and he even stuck out his tongue and drooled. The kids were thrilled. Then, in the next section, there was a panda playing with a football (or soccer ball if you insist). Our 10 year old was ecstatic. He even gained a better view of the panda who was up the tree. I am not the biggest fan of pandas, truth be told, but even I thought it was pretty magical to finally see real live pandas for the first time in my life.
Panda Mission accomplished we could wander around the zoo a bit more aimlessly and stop when we wanted to see something and wander past other things. It was far, far, far too hot and humid to spend the entire day in the open air at the zoo so we knew we would not be able to spend time at every single enclosure or section. Washington DC can be very muggy and swampy in summer and this was just such a day. The zoo did have lots of water misters that we could switch on and get a refreshing spray of water to cool us down but the effects did not last nearly long enough on such a sweltering day. The cheetah was pretty active and was slinking around his enclosure so we spent some time watching him but our next proper stop was the big ape house.
We all love orangutans (they are the animal my Dad is obsessed with) but we only got a few glimpses of those as they all seemed to be sleeping except for one who was hiding under a bed sheet. The gorillas, however, were a huge hit with the kids. One large male was leaning against the glass eating so the kids could really gain a sense of his muscle and bulk and then the same gorilla ran past them right beside the glass and they gained an even stronger sense of his scale and power. We also erupted into laughter when the large silverback gorilla peed and pooped and then sat back looking smug and arms folded as if to say, “And that’s why I’m the boss”.
The small mammal building was another big hit with all of us. We saw porcupines and armadillos which made me squeal with delight, especially when I spotted that the tree porcupines had had a baby who, not yet having hard spikes, looked like an adorable fuzzy tumbleweed. I have shared before that my 9 year old is hugely obsessed with Naked Mole Rats so we spent some time observing these peculiar wee dudes in their translucent tunnels. There was actually a squirmy traffic pile up in one tunnel and in another there was a naked mole rat with an itch he just could not scratch as he was wriggling and fidgeting and scratching away, contorting his wrinkly body into peculiar positions. The kids thought he was awesome. There was also a sloth (my sisters’ favourites), golden lion tamarins, lemurs with googly eyes, various monkeys, mongoose (mongeese?), and degus all huddled together in a pile on one log. We also saw a couple of animals I had never seen before, tree anteater things called tamanduas and a tiny little hedgehog thing from Madagascar called a tenrec.
The reptile house of any zoo is always worth a gander. Reptiles and amphibians are so varied and interesting. This reptile house did not disappoint. We saw several species of snakes, including a massive anaconda. There were also alligators and crocodiles galore, including a Cuban alligator and a garagal. There were tortoises and poisonous frogs but the kids were most entertained by the turtles. There was a massive surly looking alligator snapping turtle lurking in a murky tank, a whole tank filled with long-necked turtles who were swimming around with their oddly bendy necks, and a large turtle with shotgun nostrils.
Our final proper stop was in the Amazon section, showcasing creatures from that region of South America. There were pink birds that I think were roseate spoonbills wandering around inside and the kids thought it was cool to be so close to these exotic bright birds. We also saw a tank full of rays and another full of massive fish, including the biggest catfish I have ever seen. Other tanks contained tree frogs and dart frogs and a tarantula that made my oldest son, an arachnophobe, rather nervous even though it was behind glass and not remotely interested in him.
I am glad I returned to National Zoo and gave it another try. The improvements have turned it into a lovely zoo and the inclusion of pandas is clearly a big draw. Despite the oppressive heat, we spent a really great few hours there and saw plenty of active animals that delighted the kids.