WHERE THE ANIMALS ARE COLUMBIA CHILDREN'S ZOO - Take I-95 or U.S. 29 north to the Columbia exit: The zoo is next to the Merriweather Post Pavillion box office. Open daily, 10 to 5, Labor Day. Admission: 75 cents. OXON HILL FARM - From the Beltway take exit 37 south. Turn right onto Oxon Hill Road, then make an immediate right into farm. Open daily 8 to 5. Free. CAPITOL HILL FISH AND PET SHOP - 631 Pennsylvania Avenue SE. Open daily 10 to 7, Sunday 12 to 5. Admission free.
Since I've survived attacks by hungry pigeons on the boardwalk in Atlantic City and by the sacred denizens of the Imperial Deer Park in Nara, Japan, I thought I could keep my cool at the Columbia Children's Zoo. But as soon as the pydmy goats jumped up on me with their pointed lettle hooves, I broke down, relinquishing all of my ice-cream-type cone filled with high-protein pellets. My kids, however, were more discriminating.
"That's enough for you," said almost-six Tabitha to George, a particularly pushy pygmy goat that greeted us at the entrance to the large hillside corral where animals and visitors roam free. Holding her cone high over her head, she managed to convey some pellets to a brown goat named Farmer Brown.
"One more, that's all you get," said Tabitha's friend, Dana, to a donkey who, she complained, was "eating it all."
As all the animals wanted to eat all of each kid's food supply, we made a lot of trips back to the concession stand for refills, at 25 cents a cone. That way we were able to take advantage of the wholesale rate - 5 for $1. There are also vending machines in the field, but I was afraid the goats would devour the debris in my pocketbook if I opened it to take out a dime.
Three-year-old Caroline, whom even the pygmiest goats towered over, had only one plea: "Don't eat me!" As she got used to the animals' proximity, however, she got to like it and was soon hugging the goats and lambs so aggressively that they began to shy away. Besides, she was out of food.
With all the trips back to the concession stand to buy animal food, our progress away from the gate and deeper into the corral was slow. When we got past the goats and the donkey's there were ducks, llamas, sheep with lambs, guinea fowl and deer. We soon had them eating out of our hands - no wonder the grass is so high.
A rabbit was resting in one of the sheds where the animals go to get out of the rain.
"That bunny is so soft I don't believe it," said Dana. The bunny was hungry, too, so Dana went back to buy more food.
"I'm just taking baby steps," she explained as she tried to sneak back into the corral past the receiving line of goats.
Tabitha, meanwhile, had taken a shine to Farmer Brown "because he's skinny like me," while Caroline was trekking around after a goat named Snow White. When she saw another white goat she decided that "Snow White is twins."
Some of the animals were outside the people corral in separate pens. A newborn ilama and a calf bunked together. Pigs had a pen all their own. A pony stuck his head over the fence of his pen to be petted.
"Where's that horsey's mommy?" asked Caroline. Before I could answer she shrugged, "Maybe she died."
In a separate corral that you can get into but they can't get out of are two Aldaba tortoises from the Seychelles Islands. The kids were scared of them at first, then started caressing their shells.
In a glass-enclosed cage is a skunk. Proving their ingenuity, the kids found a place in the cage you can put your nose up against to prove to yourself there was indeed a real skunk inside.
A cage full of Capuchin monkeys from Amazon Basin stands near the zoo exit. You're not allowed to feed the monkeys - they eat fingers - but the kids stood in front of the cage for what seemed like hours making faces. Finally one of the monkeys blew a kiss and I told the kids that meant we had to leave.
As soon as you enter the Oxon Hill Children's Farm, a sign tells you you're not allowed to feed the animals, or even to handle them. The latter rule is sometimes waived, when there are new baby goats and lambs for example. But mainly the animals stay on their side of the fence and you stay on yours. The result of this rule is that animals act more like farm animals than like pets or entertainers. But kids are still entertained.
"Moo," called Caroline to the cows, who had undoubtedly heard that one before and ignored her. The sheep grazed safely, out of our reach, but some of the goats came up to eat some of the weeds Caroline had picked for them. Tabitha gathered wool that the sheep had left when they rubbed against the fence.
In the horse barn, each kid had to be lifted up to come face to face with each horse. At the pig pen, the kids squealed louder than the inhabitants. A dozen baby piglets were trying to grab onto the sow to nurse. "Can we get one of those?" asked Caroline.
At the Capitol Hill Fish and Pet Shop, most - though not all - of the animals are for sale, so you have to be ready for questions like that. From the outside, it looks like an ordinary pet shop, but behind the aquariums and the flea collars and the tropical fish food lurks a mini-zoo.
"Keep the kids back," warned the owner as I trooped in with seven of Caroline's nursery-school classmates. "That monkey has an arm swing of about a foot and a half."
A very large but unaggressive tortoise was blocking the aisle. This scared some of the kids, but the bolder ones just edged past or stepped over on their way to the rabbit cage. They petted the rabbits, then progressed to the kittens, which they all wanted to take home.
The monkey, fortunately, is not for sale. The owner said he used to sell monkeys but that the paper work just became overwhelming. The albino ferret and the coatamundi are likewise just for show. At the very back, behind glass, are iguanas and pythons. Nobody wanted to feed them and nobody wanted to take them home.
"I'm scary," said a kid, and went back to the rabbits and kittens. CAPTION: Picture, A COUPLE OF KIDS GETTING TO KNOW EACH OTHER. By Charles Del Vecchio.