Leopards, Pandas and Bears, Oh My!

Emerson Milam, 10, of Silver Spring tries to get a glimpse of the sloth bears in the new Asia Trail at the National Zoo.
Emerson Milam, 10, of Silver Spring tries to get a glimpse of the sloth bears in the new Asia Trail at the National Zoo. (By James A. Parcell -- The Washington Post)
By Mary K. Feeney
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, October 27, 2006

The sloth bear cub and his mother padded slowly down a dirt slope and looked at the people staring at them. They sniffed at the glass window with their long noses and peered back.

Clearly, they were not used to the attention. If bears could talk, they'd be saying, "What are you people doing here?"

Like many of the featured players in the National Zoo's new Asia Trail and Fujifilm Giant Panda Habitat, young Balawat and his mother, Hana, are still adjusting to life in the spotlight. The sloth bear environment, along with several other habitats, allow visitors to view the animals in glass-walled enclosures rather than through metal bars.

"They're just getting used to the exhibit," said Tony Barthel, curator of the Asia Trail, which opened this month. "The glass is probably the biggest change for these guys."

With waterfalls, rolling slopes and birds twittering in the bamboo trees, the sloth bears and their neighbors have a relaxing new home. The six-acre area contains threatened or endangered species: two clouded leopards, two fishing cats, a Japanese giant salamander, a pair of red pandas, a gang of six Asian small-clawed otters, three sloth bears and, of course, giant pandas Mei Xiang, Tian Tian and son Tai Shan.

For kids, the new habitats offer a chance to see animals in a more intimate way. Kara Blond, interpretive projects manager, said the Asia Trail is designed with lower perspectives so kids can view the animals without craning their necks. The exhibit has rocklike nooks to explore, animal sounds that can be heard at the push of a button and learning stations along the path where visitors can read about the creatures or touch samples of fur. A water-cooled rock will provide summer relief to the giant pandas and thrills for visitors, who can see the bears only inches away through the glass.

Animal conservation is very much a part of the experience, with touch-screen activities and video clips, and displays of tools of the zoological trade, such as medical equipment. Kids can make their own Asia Trail Web sites by typing in their e-mail addresses and requesting information on the animals; the site pops up as a message on computers at home.

Also likely to grab attention is a camera trap, near the fishing cats' space, that demonstrates how photography is used in the wild to estimate animal populations. The trap also captures zoo visitors, who can see themselves a few steps later on film.

Other features showcase the animals' unique physical traits. Man-made termite mounds show how sloth bears use their tremendous blowing and sucking power to get food. A door outside the habitat is fitted with a hole to channel insects and fruit into the mounds.

Scattered throughout the exhibit are hands-on games or visual puzzles. "Look closely and you'll see that a poacher has crossed this path," one sign reads; nearby is an animal trap in the grass.

Young children may not grasp the subtleties of the innovative surroundings, but the unusual Asian animals that swim, climb and sleep here may prompt requests for return visits.

They might have a tough time spotting the elegant clouded leopards, who tend to keep a low profile during the day and spend the night lounging in the tall trees. Not so with the fishing cats, which like to sit on the bank of a glass-fronted pond, dipping their paws in to lure tiny silverfish swimming below.

The resident comedians live in a heated pond complete with a waterfall. The small-clawed otters, all brothers, splash around, slide over one another to jockey for position, hoist themselves up like prairie dogs and yawn. The show is better than television.

"It's our own 'Meerkat Manor,' " said Bob Lamb, executive director of Friends of the National Zoo, referring to the popular Animal Planet TV series.

The red pandas, like the leopards, have a deep vertical environment that allows them to climb trees. Munching bamboo, they wrap their long, striped tails around the trees for balance.

In the giant panda habitat's 10,000-square-foot indoor space, you can push a button to listen to panda mating calls or the chatter of a newborn cub, or watch videos of panda keepers recounting their favorite moments with the pandas. For those curious about panda cuisine, the zoo has a model of the mammoth fruit-sicles that keep Tai Shan and crew cool during the summer.

The exhibit's two new outdoor areas house the very noisy eaters. On a recent tour, Mei Xiang demonstrated the loud cracking of bamboo branches. Nearby and undisturbed, 1-year-old Tai Shan was sound asleep in the crook of a cork tree.

NATIONAL ZOO 3001 Connecticut Ave. NW. Open year-round except Dec. 25. The zoo closes early Friday through Sunday for Boo at the Zoo. Animal houses will close at 4 and the grounds at 4:30. Regular hours through March 10 are 6 to 6 for the grounds; 10 to 4:30 for the houses. (Metro: Woodley Park-Zoo, Cleveland Park). 202- 633-1000.http://nationalzoo.si.edu.

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