Going to the zoo with a two-year-old is no picnic -- going anywhere with a two-year-old is no picnic -- but it's such a treat for them that the effort is worth it. And while a cold-weather outing presents its own challenges, like keeping track of mittens and such, the zoo in winter does have its charms.

It's a trade-off. The weather precludes leisurely strolls through the park, but it also discourages a lot of people from coming out at all -- a definite plus, as anyone who's been there in summer will appreciate. The zoo in winter is quiet, cold and still. When the stillness is pierced, it's by things like animal calls, not whining children (except perhaps your own).

Zoo statistics show that attendance drops by more than 75 percent during the winter months."People are afraid to come out here when it's cold, but winter is a great time," maintains Ilene Ackerman of the zoo staff. "The animals are more active when it's nice and brisk out."

Sunday afternoons from now through mid-March, the zoo is sponsoring special programs to encourage winter attendance. "Sunday Afternoons at the National Zoo" are family programs that range from movies like "King Kong" to dramatic readings to special tours and lectures.

But when you're escorting a toddler, sometimes it's best to avoid programs with people in them. My plan on a recent visit was to head for the indoor exhibits and avoid everything else. I didn't count on Beth, 2, being sidetracked by outdoor attractions. She liked the kangaroos ("Look Mommy! Reindeers!") and the zebras ("Mom! Look at the reindeers!"), and she especially liked the caribou ("I want to kiss that reindeer, Mom. I want to feed him some hay").

While I searched for the Bird House -- those clever little pawprints painted on the paths don't seem so ingenious when they're covered up by ice, snow and sand -- she ran off again. I found her in raptures by the gazelles.

"Mom! A squirrel climbed up a tree at the zoo!" Yes honey, just like in our back yard, now how about this gazelle? She wasn't interested. She was, by this time, exclaiming over the snow. Never mind that there was snow all over our neighborhood, this was better snow. Zoo snow. "Mom! It snowed at the zoo!"

When we did finally make it to the Bird House it was wonderful -- warm, humid tropical air punctuated by birdcalls and sounds of running water. Rock gardens, waterfalls and lots of jungly plants and flowers make it an instant, welcome contrast to the freezing temperatures outside.

There were problems, but they were peculiar to the age at hand. Ever try explaining to a hysterical two-year-old where Big Bird is when she knows perfectly well you're at the Bird House at the zoo, and where else would Big Bird live?