National Zoo reopens American Trail

September 14, 2012

When you think of the National Zoo, you might think of exotic animals, ones that come from faraway places. Cheetahs, which usually live in Africa, and pandas, which are from China, are two of the zoo’s most popular attractions. But this month the zoo has put the focus on animals that live closer to home. The American Trail — which was closed for three years — has reopened, and the renovated area might remind you of places you’ve been on vacation.

“We like to have people think that they’re on the West Coast,” said Chuck Fillah, who was in charge of planning the $42 million project, which includes a waterfall, a meandering stream, shady paths and a get-your-feet-wet tidal pool. “Our idea is to have people connected to nature.”

It’s hard not to feel a part of nature at the sea lion and seal pools. What used to look like oversize backyard swimming pools now look like coves on the Oregon coast. American Trail’s four sea lions and Selkie the gray seal are surrounded by huge rocks. (Actually, they’re pieces of concrete made to look like rocks.) They have a small beach, shady areas and pretend starfish and barnacles on the pools’ walls.

Visitors have several spots where they can check out sea lions Summer, Callie, Sidney and pup Sophie. There are two areas to watch them lounging on rocks. A covered area gives a peek from above and below the waterline. And a cave with a huge window is the best place to catch their underwater antics. Last Sunday the crowds oohed and aahed every time one of the playful sea lions shot past the window or popped out from under a pretend log.

“I think it’s really cool that you can see them up close,” said Chloe Reeve, 9, of Derwood. The opening of American Trail helped persuade mom Stephanie Reeve to bring the family to the zoo. Brother Dylan, 11, had a suggestion for the zoo staff: “It would be fun if you could swim with [sea lions].”

That much interaction between visitors and the animals isn’t likely at the zoo, but Malia Somerville and four other American Trail zookeepers have daily feeding and training sessions that are open to the public. A recent sea lion feeding had Summer and Callie up on the rocks, lifting a flipper, jumping and spinning on cue.

“All of our animals are in a training program,” Somerville said. “Some of the behaviors aren’t super important. It’s more for mental enrichment.”

Somerville said the staff uses the sessions to help visitors understand animal husbandry, or how the zoo takes care of its animals. This includes looking for signs of illness or injury, checking their eyes and weighing them. (Sea lions even get their teeth cleaned!)

Somerville said it’s also a chance to talk about conservation. Many of the animals on American Trail — including pelicans Tinkerbell and Wendy — were injured in the wild and then rescued. Zookeepers can explain how fishing or polluting have harmed them and how changes in human behaviors can help save endangered animals.

“It gives us a chance to highlight some of the success stories,” she said.

You might not hear zookeepers talk about it, but the new American Trail is also about conserving something else: water. The old pools, which were last renovated 36 years ago, were in bad shape. “The pools were leaking,” Fillah said.

Now, the building between the seal and sea lion pools has filters and pumps that recycle the water.

Some of it is used for a fun feature for humans: a freshwater tidal pool. Last Sunday, a steady stream of barefoot kids explored the area in which a few inches of water shoots out of jets in the rock to make it seem as though the tide is coming in. The same water rushes out a few moments later. It made for a refreshing treat on a warm day.

The sea lions and the gray seal will be joined by three other gray seals and two harbor seals this fall. They may get the most attention, but other animals on American Trail deserve a look. New species include two gray wolves (Coby and Crystal) and four ravens.

You might remember river otters Konrad and Niko and bald eagle Tioga from the old exhibit, which was called Beaver Valley. They’re back, and so are beavers Chipper, Buzz and Willow. Stop by during the beavers’ afternoon feeding. You might be surprised at the size of these big-toothed rodents. (Buzz weighs in at 55 pounds!)

Whether you see a huge beaver or hear a croaking raven, a visit to American Trail is likely to help you appreciate wild animals that live not far away.

American Trail “is something you think you know,” Somerville said. “You may come and interact with a keeper, and it kind of opens your eyes.”

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