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Farm lovers stage 'pet in' at the National Zoo

By Lori Aratani
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 26, 2011; 9:43 PM

The news spread quickly. From play group to playground, by Internet mailing list and by text message - word was out that officials at the National Zoo are closing the Kids' Farm and Giant Pizza Playground - and fans of Rose and Tulip, the barn's resident cows, were not pleased. Not at all.

So on Saturday, fans led by Jamie Davis Smith, a lawyer and mother of three, staged a "pet-in" to show that it's not just pandas that fans of the National Zoo love and appreciate.

More than 75 people - from pint-sized to full-grown - turned out. They signed petitions and reminisced about the days when their now 7-year-olds and 8-year-olds were just toddlers and the zoo offered a welcome respite from the four walls of a colicky child's nursery.

"For little kids, these are really the first animals they know,'' said Robin Kane, who brought several snapshots of her daughter Bergen playing in the pizza playground - a giant pizza that features an olive that children can crawl though, moveable mushrooms and a cheese-wedge slide. "I don't think zoo officials really understand how beloved this place is.''

Parents say the Kids' Farm and playground are especially important because they are the only exhibits at the zoo designed specifically for younger children. Supporters trying to save the farm even created a Facebook group: Save the Petting Zoo & Pizza Playground at the National Zoo.

Davis Smith said she doesn't want her children to miss out on the farm experience she never had growing up in a city. For their part, zoo officials say they don't want to shutter the Kids' Farm, but recent cutbacks leave them few alternatives.

"We're very saddened that the budget situation has forced us to close it," said zoo spokeswoman Jodi Legge.

It costs approximately $250,000 a year to maintain the Kids' Farm, Legge said. In addition, it would cost an estimated $60,000 to replace the equipment in the much-loved but well-worn pizza playground. Unless a generous benefactor comes forward in the next few weeks, the Kids' Farm and nearby playground will likely close in the late spring or early summer, Legge said. Zoo officials have already begun trying to find homes for the alpacas, pygmy goats, pigs, cows and sheep who call it home.

Steve Davis, whose 3-year-old son, Ian, is a huge fan of the pizza playground, isn't giving up the fight quite yet. He's already reached out to several national pizza chains to see if they'd be interested in a sponsorship deal. "This is such a great place,'' said Davis, who lives in Logan Circle. "A little kid can pop up here, play in the playground, pet a cow and have a nice lunch.'' Nicholas Lampetti, 8, who stopped by the pet-in with his mother and baby sister, has taken the potential closure of the Kids' Farm particularly hard.

"I had my 4th birthday here,'' he said. "We took lots of pictures and my mom put them into a book. I'm glad I have my zoo book, because soon, I might not have the Kids' Farm.''

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