LIONS AND TIGERS and . . . cows? Oh my!
Within mooing distance of the National Zoo's jungle cats, Tulip the Holstein and Rose the Hereford graze contentedly in a small, grassy pasture, occasionally moseying up to the fence to receive friendly pats from eager little hands. The two bovines reside -- along with goats, miniature donkeys, chickens and ducks -- in the zoo's newest exhibit, a compact barnyard especially geared toward the youngest visitors.
Kids' Farm, open since early June, encompasses almost two acres of displays and hands-on activities designed to answer questions such as "How do you care for farm animals?" and "Where does your food come from?"
Catering to families with children ages 3 to 8, the exhibits include easy-to-read signs bearing pictures of each type of animal on display, along with facts about the critters' grooming and feeding. Kids enjoy lifting handled flaps to find the hidden answers to questions about each species' characteristics, such as, on goats, "What can be upright or droopy, depending on the breed?" (answer: ears) or, on cows, "What part of the tail is used as a fly swatter?" (answer: switch). Preschoolers especially like the "Who's in the barn?" feature mounted next to each pen: Open the door on a little red barn cutout and hear the sound of the adjacent animal.
Of course, the animals themselves attract plenty of attention, and even appeared to enjoy entertaining the crowds on a recent afternoon. Lucky and Iris, frisky Anglo-Nubian goats, bolt for the fence and bleat noisily, hoping for a handout when they catch sight of a zookeeper, who greets them by name but disappoints them by heading for the chickens instead. Arguably the cutest creatures in the farm menagerie, four miniature Mediterranean donkeys -- Pat, Giuseppe, George and Flash -- exhibit mischievous tendencies and look as if they're smiling. Giuseppe seems quite pleased to roll around in the dirt, while Flash and Pat get into a frolicking match, playfully nipping each other's necks as they race around the fenced-in yard. Rose, a brown-and-white cow, listens to a chorus of "moos" from encouraging onlookers, then suddenly, as if on cue, moos right back at the delighted group.
Unlike typical petting zoos, Kids' Farm doesn't feature free-roaming critters or vending machines that dispense handfuls of food pellets. Visitors are welcome to touch animals venturing within range, but should, as a posted sign encourages, "Be gentle; stroke or pat an animal -- but not around the head." Feeding is prohibited, but folks can watch the animals eat food provided by the keepers.
Usually twice a day, Kids' Farm staff members supervise Caring Corral, an opportunity for visitors to help with grooming chores, typically brushing the goats and donkeys. The wiry-haired animals stand patiently or walk around slowly while brush-wielding youngsters (and parents) flit from one to another.
On average, 160 people an hour participate in the program, says public affairs specialist Peper Long. The program has proved so popular that employees often must turn away visitors when the line reaches its maximum capacity. To quell disappointment, a staff member often brings out another animal for an "up close and personal experience," Long says.
"The line's closed, but I've got a chicken here if you want to pet her," a keeper tells some kids, who stop to stroke the surprisingly soft feathers of a honey-colored Buff Orpington hen, one of six breeds in the farm's chicken house.
Kids' Farm staff and volunteers also use interpretation carts to provide more detailed information about animals on exhibit.
"These are duck eggs -- they're real duck eggs. Pick one up and touch it," volunteer Paula Frechen instructs a child who's looking at hollowed-out eggshells. She asks the youngster, "Why do you think they need to be strong?" and then explains how eggs' exteriors protect the babies inside. Other items on the cart include model duck feet, a feather and literature. Nearby, White Pekins, Indian Runners and Cayugas swim in a pond.
Past the outdoor animal areas and heated big red barn, where visitors can view the farm residents during cold weather, a pizza-shaped garden gives kids a look at how the popular food's ingredients get their start. Inside, wedge-shaped plots -- representing the pie's "slices" -- grow tomatoes for sauce, peppers and onions for toppings, wheat for flour and herbs for seasonings. Children can gently rub the basil and oregano leaves, then sniff their fingers for a whiff of pizzalike aroma. A wedge of grass, topped with a miniature cutout of a grazing cow, symbolizes the milk that becomes cheese. A little olive tree grows in the center of the circle. Corn and soybean plants, representing ingredients used for glue and ink in pizza boxes, sprout from soil nearby.
Beneath a nearby tent, chaos rules as children let off steam atop a shiny pizza crafted from cushiony, rubberized plastic.
"Mommy, Mommy, I'm on a tomato!" a curly-haired tyke yells from atop an oversize red fruit. Kids take turns sliding down a cheese wedge and crawling through or climbing onto a hollow black olive. Other youngsters tote around giant mushroom and onion slices, which they arrange as stepping stones or stack to make steps. All the while, parents rest on nearby benches or along the pizza "crust." On the outskirts of the play area, cleverly designed displays show kids how crops evolve into pizza toppings. Youngsters can stir a tomato pot, pull up onion stalks, lift flaps on an olive tree, and turn a crank to see how wheat becomes flour. Pails in front of a cow describe the steps of cheesemaking, and windows in a mushroom box light up to show the harvest process.
Alas, if romping on a giant pizza and learning about its ingredients make kids hungry for the real deal, they can't satisfy their cravings at the neighboring Mane Restaurant, which specializes in hamburgers and hot dogs. They'll just have to make do with sliced onions and tomatoes from the condiment bar.
NATIONAL ZOO -- 3001 Connecticut Ave. NW. (Metro: Woodley Park-Zoo-Adams Morgan or Cleveland Park). 202-673-4800 (24-hour recorded information). nationalzoo.si.edu. Open daily except Dec. 25. Through Oct. 31, grounds open 6 a.m. to 8 p.m., buildings open 10 to 6. Nov. 1 to April 2, grounds open 6 to 6, buildings open 10 to 4:30. Free admission. Limited parking costs $7 for the first four hours, $12 for more than four hours; free for Friends of the National Zoo (FONZ) members. (A FONZ annual family membership costs $50.) Kids' Farm is closest to Parking Lot D, adjacent to Rock Creek Parkway. Visit the farm early to check the day's Caring Corral schedule, during which visitors can help groom farm animals. Session times vary, but generally take place for an hour or so in the morning and again in the afternoon. Upcoming special events at the zoo include the following:
Fiesta Musical -- Sunday from 11 to 5. The FONZ-sponsored event celebrates Hispanic Heritage Month and features Latino music and dance lessons, Latin American foods and crafts, and animal demonstrations presented in both Spanish and English.
Boo at the Zoo -- Oct. 22-24 from 5:30 to 8:30. Children ages 2 through 12 can trick or treat at more than 40 treat stations, staffed by costumed volunteers throughout the zoo. $23, $13 for members. Tickets, which went on sale earlier this month, sell out quickly. Coupons offering $3 off the regular ticket price are available at area Whole Foods Market stores.