"Want to take a ride on me?" ask six-year-old John Woods, who is crouched on the floor with a giant tortoise shell on his back. None of the other kids at Zoolab, a kind of library filled with things like snake skins, bird of paradise feathers and gorilla skulls as well as books, takes him up on it; they're all too busy making rubbings of python skins, trying on antlers, examining emu eggs, fingering rattlesnakes' teeth, and learning the answers to questions kids often ask at the zoo. Like how many gallons of baby formula the orphaned baby elephant drinks a day.
Nine gallons, out of a bucket," reveals volunteer Thelma Baker, who's going through a learning box labeled "animal diets" with some of the kids who are too young to read the explanations for themselves. Most of the zoo inmates take vitamins, Bakers tells them, and the monkeys and gorillas especially like the Flinstones brand.
"I take those , too," cries the little excitedly.
"Who eats raisins at the zoo?" Baker asks, holding up a small empty raisin box.
"People," answers another little girl.
Yes, but the birds in the bird house eat them too, Baker tells her.
"I want to show you a feather you're not going to believe," says Baker, replacing the diet box with the feather box. A soft, curling brown-and-white feather is passed around to exclamations of "tickly!" and "furry!"
"This is a feather from an owl," Baker tells the kids. "This is why an owl can fly through the air and not be heard - its feathers are so soft."
Jenny Turnham, who is six and knows how to read, is examining a box of nests. She picks up one shaped like a cup, matches it up with a card and learns that it's the former home of a barn swallow. Other boxes hold teeth, eggs and skins - all to be matched with their animal owners.
At an easel, Bonnie Baratz, 7, is drawing a picture of a lion, which she may either take home or hang with others at Zoolab. Why does the animal have a green mane? "Because somebody's using the blue magic marker," she replies.
Other young artists are making rubbings with pencils and tracing paper of a stuffed armadillo, a caiman (a small crocodilian) and various snake hides, which are streched out on the wall. "Jonathan, the lady said to rub in one direction," a mother instructs her two-year-old.
While a toddler twirls an accordion-pleated make-believe snake around and other kids hold an impromptu puppet show with a real baby leopard skin, some older children concentrate on quieter enjoyment. Stephen Turnham, 10, peers at a crocodile skin through a magnifying glass. Micheal Linde, 13, examines the tiny skull of a frog. "I can see its teeth better with a magnifying glass," he explains.
Adrian Lewis, 14, and Anthony Crowder, 12, pore over books and copy pictures of the animals, which they turn in to Baker. They are regulars, Baker explains, who come once or twice a week by bus from Northeast Washington and make excellent animal drawyngs. "I'm most interested in frogs," says Anthony.
John Woods and his brother Jason, 8, strap reindeer antlers on their heads and pretend to duel with them. The Zoolab handouts tells them that animals with antlers shed them regularly but animals with horns keep them permanently, and that of all female deer, only reindeer females have antlers.
"Hey, mom, how would you like to carry those around on your head?" a boy asks.
"If I were a reindeer I'd have developed the nick muscles to support them," answers his mother.
In another corner of the room, Jenny Turnham has discovered the "peek-a-books." They are photographs of zoo inmates covered with black paper with holes arranged so that only the feet or the nose or some other feature show. Jenny guesses that one nose belongs to a monkey. She lifts the covering sheet and finds a bear. The next nose she identifies as a polar bear, but it turns out to belong to a white-cheeked gibbon. Another nose looks very strange indeed and she won't even hazard a guess. She peeks and finds a smilling human face.The nose belongs to one of the zoo-keepers. ZOOLAB
In the zoo's Education Building, near the Connecticut Avenue entrance. Saturdays and Sundays noon to 3, Tuesdays through Fridays 1 to 3.