When I was in college in central Pennsylvania, I remember being slightly startled to learn that my friends who lived near Valley Forge National Park viewed that area more as an excellent picnic spot than as an important historic site, which it certainly is as well. Over the years, I’ve collected these examples of locals having a different relationship than tourists with historic sites. My Beloved Husband’s English family taught me that the New Forest, (so designated by William the Conqueror in 1079) has numerous excellent picnic spots, and when I visited Versailles with my parents and sister, I observed quite a few games of Frisbee on the grounds. I had previously thought that playing softball on the Boston Common was the ultimate in cool until I encountered multiple games of kickball on the National Mall. Yoga at the base of the Washington Monument also looked particularly appealing. For the past year, the National Zoo has been part of my neighborhood at a mere ten minute walk away, and I’ve noticed that like all of these other examples, living in close proximity to this resource has given me a very different perspective on the facility.
I have visited the National Zoo a number of times over the years, most often with the Darling Daughters since the animals were always a surefire hit. Those experiences as a visitor taught me two very important lessons. The first is that the Zoo is built on a rather steep hill, and somehow uphill is always the desirable direction. That first condition leads in part to the second lesson; by 3:00 in the afternoon at the Zoo, most children are hot and tired and tend to have fits of uncontrolled crying. When my friend brought her own five-year-old daughter to visit me, as a veteran mother, she was frankly skeptical of my ability to time meltdowns. The three of us set off for an afternoon at the Zoo, and when I heard the first child crying, I looked at my watch, looked at my friend and said, “3:10.” Moments later, a second child joined in, and I said, “3:12.” My friend accepted that she was beat, or perhaps she just accepted that she was visiting with a scientist who was planning to collect data to match her theory.
On Saturday and Sunday mornings in the summer, the mix of pedestrians at my Metro stop strongly favors families on their way to the Zoo. I always figure that the families who come to my stop at Cleveland Park are the smart families. The next Metro stop down is officially named “Woodley Park-Zoo” but if you come all the way out to Cleveland Park, then the walk to the Zoo is downhill, and it’s still about the same distance.
During my early time in Cleveland Park, my favorite time to go to the Zoo was about 5:00 in the afternoon. That time was carefully chosen because meltdowns had thinned the crowds substantially, and with the buildings about to close, there were few people remaining. I simply like to walk in the Zoo, to stroll the paths, and to fill my soul with trees and quiet. On lucky days I would catch site of a few animals, especially one tiger who posed for my camera obligingly.
I had been vaguely aware of the reproductive issues with giant pandas for some time. Female pandas only ovulate once per year and therefore are fertile for just a matter of days. According to the Zoo’s website, because cubs stay with their mothers for up to three years, at best a female might produce offspring every other year. (I couldn’t help wondering if this was a question of “not in front of the children?”) Thus it was to great fanfare that the Zoo’s female panda, Mei Xiang, had a baby last fall. About the size of a stick of butter, the infant seemed to be doing OK until suddenly it stopped moving and responding and died. The zookeeper who had been checking in on the webcam of mother and baby seemed as traumatized as Mei Xiang, although my recollection is that the autopsy revealed that the death was from natural causes.
I hadn’t given much thought to zoo babies beyond the giant pandas, but living in the immediate vicinity of the Zoo for a year has also made me more aware of news stories in connection to the facility. Like all the other Smithsonian institutions, there is a vast amount of activity that occurs behind the exhibits, thus the National Zoo is about far more than just displaying exotic animals. In conjunction with the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal, Virginia, the Zoo has a strong focus on trying to preserve species that have been identified as critically endangered, endangered, or threatened. In addition to carrying out research on animal care, conservation ecology, and genetics, the Zoo has an extremely active breeding program for most of its animals. I’ve been living next to a maternity ward!
The first young I heard about were in April and were two maned wolf cubs, who at their first check-up were doing quite well. They have been named “Bold” and “Shy” for their contrasting personalities. According to the press release, they represent 40 percent of the maned wolf cubs born in the US this year. I can do the math. That means they are only two of five cubs, which makes their birth and survival all the more impressive.
More recently, two Sumatran Tiger cubs were born at the zoo, which was a major endangered species triumph. Thus far the keepers haven’t gotten a close look at the cubs since they first work very slowly to get the protective mother comfortable with having someone else around, but there are webcams in her den so they can keep an eye on the family. From the webcam pictures, the babies look adorable.
Even back in giant panda world, Mei Xiang has been showing signs of pregnancy, although there is always an uncertainty whether it is a true pregnancy or just a pseudo pregnancy. I have no doubt that the panda keepers go through this annual round of hope and possibilities, and they’ll just have to see whether this is the year of a baby who survives. For the moment, the Panda House is closed to visitors, although the inhabitants can be viewed through a webcam on the Zoo’s website.
Aside from all the babies this summer, there was some additional excitement when a young red panda (no relation to the giant pandas) named Rusty disappeared from his enclosure at the end of June. Rusty obviously decided that since he had moved to DC, he needed to see the sights. He was eventually spotted by a family in an adjacent neighborhood who quickly realized that this was not a fox, so the teen-aged daughter snapped a picture, sent it to the zoo, and the keepers arrived to collect their truant. The keepers finally figured out that there had been a considerable amount of rain the night of the escape, which bent the tree limbs of the enclosure thus creating a temporary bridge between the trees and the bamboo for a clever young panda to go on walkabout. Rusty was kept in the animal hospital for a week or so, given a tetanus shot, and returned to his enclosure after the trees were given a significant haircut.
In a nostalgic mood recently, I took a last stroll through the zoo as a resident neighbor. I made a point of stopping in the renovated Elephant House, which is now known as the Elephant Community Center. In addition to offering the elephants much more space to move about, the new facility is heated and cooled using geothermal energy as part of the Zoo’s sustainability plan. I also snapped a few photos of the zebras. I’m not quite sure why, but zebras in person strike me as one of the strangest animals ever. I have no problem with striped tigers or spotted leopards, but striped zebras always look vaguely unnatural to me, if extremely chic in their black and white.
I have thoroughly enjoyed living near the Zoo this year, and learning so many of the stories about the animals has given me a much better appreciation for the Zoo’s role in trying to preserve endangered species through breeding. I also have my fingers crossed for good news about Mei Xiang, but even if this isn’t the year for a new baby giant panda, I know that by next summer, there will be another pack, herd, or flock of baby animals to celebrate.