IT'S COLD, IT'S GRAY, it's dreary -- let's go to the zoo!
Though usually considered a summertime family outing, a trip to the Smithsonian's National Zoo can be an unexpected treat on a winter day. The park's landscape has a certain austere beauty with bare trees and cold, clear light. As a result, you can see some of the outdoor animals more readily, like the pair of zebras I glimpsed twitching their ears and tails near the zoo's entrance on Connecticut Avenue.
Even if you're bundled in a sweater and coat, you have a sense of freedom. There are no crowds, and you can move from place to place with ease. "The peak of the year is summer," says public affairs specialist Peper Long. "Back in August there was one day when we had more than 15,000 [people]!"
"The number of visitors reduces significantly in the winter," she continues. As a result, "people can stroll pretty leisurely [and] have an easier time viewing some of the more popular animals like the giant pandas."
There wasn't even a line at the panda enclosure on the day I visited. The Panda House is closed to tourists because of construction for the Asian Trail, a new exhibit slated to open in 2006, but pandas Mei Xiang and Tian Tian are usually outdoors in their Chinese-inspired garden. Landscaped with willow trees and bamboo, the garden is like an amphitheater with a long, curving balcony overhead for viewers, which, at the moment, is wonderfully empty.
The pair sat next to each other at a stone table of sorts, placidly enjoying an afternoon snack. They each held a container of frozen fruit in their soft, black forepaws. As they foraged and chewed their fruit, viewers quietly took photographs and a mother took a moment to rearrange her child in a stroller. The overall atmosphere was low-key, quite a contrast to summer's crush of noisy, sweaty tourists.
As it happens, pandas prefer cold weather. "In the summer when it's really hot you'll see Mei Xiang and Tian Tian either indoors or in their outdoor grottos that are water and air cooled -- and they're usually sleeping," Long says.
Giant pandas are native to the western mountains of China, which have a damp climate with temperatures comparable to those in Washington in January. As a result, the pandas are more playful in the wintertime. "Between their increased activity and smaller crowds at the zoo, it's actually a very good time to give them an visit," Long says.
While the pandas relish the cold, not all of the zoo's inhabitants are so enthusiastic. The excitable ring-tailed lemurs, for example, are brought indoors for the winter as they are from the tropics. Cold-blooded reptiles such as the American alligator and the Komodo dragon, meanwhile, spend their winter in the Reptile House. Indeed, the majority of the zoo's animals stay outdoors in the winter and are carefully monitored by staff each day.
"When the temperature dips to 20 degrees or below, all the animals are automatically kept inside," Long says. In the case of extreme winter weather, "zoo keepers and curatorial staff assess their behavior and take into account things like windchill factor and snow to determine whether or not it is safe for them to go out." Hence the Bactrian camel, native of the grasslands of China and Mongolia, will stay outdoors as it has an adaptive winter coat of dark fur. The orangutans from Borneo, however, are far more sensitive to the cold and stay indoors when temperatures are in the 30s and 40s.
The zoo stays open when it snows. Walkways are cleared and covered with sand. However, if the pathways become slick, the zoo closes not only out of concern for visitor safety, but the safety of their staff who need to attend to the animals. "Our veterinary trucks and maintenance vehicles need to negotiate the roadways and walkways to do their job," Long says. "It's a lot easier to do that if we don't have folks walking around."
Some of the animals, like kids, enjoy a snow day. "A lot of animals get pretty excited about the snow," Long says. "They won't be out all day, but they will get some fresh air and check out the snow. And the giant pandas, of course, love the snow."
Cold weather actually affords visitors an opportunity to visit warm-climate animals "up close and personal" in their indoor exhibition areas. While watching an Asian elephant lunching in the savannah-like Elephant House, for example, I realized that it wasn't uniformly gray; its wrinkled hide is soft brown and almost white in some areas, and it has soft, sparse hair, like a newborn's, growing on its back. I also learned that elephants are very quiet. You would think that an animal as big as a van would be loud, breathing heavily and stomping around. But elephants move slowly, gracefully, almost dreamily. Their steps have a soft shuffle sound as their immense feet brush across the floor. That something so grand can be so quiet makes them all the more a powerful presence.
From just hanging out with the Asian elephant on a winter afternoon, I found out more about its appearance and behavior than I would have from a summertime visit.
Of course, if it's really raw out you can take a quick trip to South America by visiting "Amazonia," the zoo's rain forest exhibit. The building's warm, muggy climate compels visitors to take off their coats. Downstairs, aquatic exhibits feature freshwater stingrays that look like giant ravioli fanning through the water. A nearby aquarium features the arapaima, a four-foot-long fish with stubby fins that doesn't so much swim as glide by with meditative dignity. The black pacu, meanwhile, looks like a giant, perfectly shaped goldfish cracker only instead of bright orange, it's soft gray.
Upstairs in the "rain forest," animals are permitted to roam freely. It's easy to spot the monkeys, which scurry from tree to tree, occasionally emitting a high-pitched peeping noise akin to birdcall. The two-toed sloths are a bit more difficult to locate amid the lush vegetation. The exhibit not only exposes viewers to rain forest animals, but the environment in which they live (albeit a simulated version). It also introduces viewers to new species. "We all love the pandas," Long says, "but going to Amazonia really opens up a door to a world of fish and frogs and [other] creatures that you haven't even heard of. Plus, it's very warm."
While there are plenty of animals to visit at the zoo during the winter, it's also interesting to turn your attention to your fellow species. Families and friends cluster in social groups. Parents carry their young in strollers and reprimand those who whine about being tired. You'll see the occasional jogger wearing shorts despite the cold and pairs of speed-walking women clutching water bottles. Snacking seems to be a principle diversion: I saw two little boys slurping rainbow Sno Cones and a girl pointing insistently at a vending machine that dispensed Nutty Buddies. Some animal behaviors, it seems, don't change in the winter.
NATIONAL ZOO -- 3001 Connecticut Ave. NW. 202-673-4800. Winter hours, in effect through April: Grounds are open 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.; buildings are open 10 to 4:30. Free. www.nationalzoo.si.edu.