In the summer of 1989, during a family vacation, I visited the National Zoo (3001 Connecticut Ave. NW). I don’t recall seeing any animals, but I vividly remember my younger brother sleeping peacefully in an otter-shaped stroller while I trudged up an endless hill, sweat streaming down my face, struggling to breathe the soggy blanket that passes for air during the summer in D.C. Not that I am bitter.
That memory might be why, when I went to the zoo recently with my friend Dave, his sister Meryl and his nieces Gylie, 5, and Nomi, 10, I argued against getting a stroller for little Gylie.
“You can see the animals better on foot,” I said.
Pointing out that toddlers are much easier to push than carry, Meryl ignored my advice and rented the stroller for $9.
Nomi wanted to see the tigers first, but they were at the other end of the zoo. So we headed down a long, sloping path in their general direction, with Gylie in the stroller and Dave pushing.
“I want it to go faster,” Gylie said. Dave didn’t respond, so Gylie clarified her position.
“I’d rather it go faster,” she said. Dave refused to pick up the pace, so Gylie hopped out and ran toward the first animals she saw.
“It’s a baby cow,” Gylie said.
It was actually a red river pig, much bigger than any pig I’d ever seen, and it had strange tasseled ears. In fact, all of the animals in that enclosure looked like ostentatious versions of familiar creatures. Grazing near the pig was an oryx, an antelope with long, curving horns, and on a stump sat a vulture that, were it pressed into service, would offer more legroom than your average commuter airline.
A boy with a puff of black hair stood on tiptoe and leaned against a low wall to get a better view of the oryx. Grabbing him by his shirt collar, the boy’s mom told him the cautionary tale of Harambe, the gorilla who was shot after a kid fell into his enclosure at the Cincinnati Zoo.
“But Mom, this is a deer,” the boy said.
We walked around a bend and saw a group of tourists pointing at what appeared to be a patch of shade. Squinting, we spotted a cheetah, fast asleep.
“OK, I saw it. Let’s keep going,” Nomi said. “We have to get through all the animals to get to the tigers.”
Our next stop was the panda house, where we were met with the adorable visage of Bao Bao. The nearly 3-year-old panda was asleep on a ledge, a Mona Lisa smile across her face.
Nomi was unimpressed. “He’s still in the exact same spot I saw him in last year,” she said.
At the other end of the enclosure, Bao Bao’s dad, Tian Tian, was putting on a much better show. Perched on a rock, he ate a pile of bamboo with gusto. Tourists cooed at his every move, while one woman provided a play-by-play.
“He’s picking up the bamboo,” she announced. “He’s eating the leaves.”
When Tian Tian rolled onto his back and slid down the rock, we all cheered as if he’d scored a winning touchdown. Then, Tian Tian’s solo act took an X-rated turn.
“He’s itching his belly,” the woman said. “It must be really itchy,” she added uncertainly.
We hustled the girls out of the panda house of ill repute and continued downhill. We visited elephants and gorillas, then stopped for Italian ice. Next, we speed-walked to the tiger exhibit. But when we got to the island where the jungle cats were supposed to be, all we saw were a few small birds taking dust baths. Then, Nomi noticed a striped tail peeking out from behind some concrete stairs. The tail didn’t so much as flick — that tiger was out cold.
“It’s all curled up,” Nomi said. “It’s cool to see, though.”
Seeing tigers and cheetahs up close is always a thrill, even if they’re fast asleep.
We’d been at the zoo for three hours, walking downhill the entire time. That meant we had a long, hot uphill hike ahead of us to get back to the main entrance, where we could return the stroller. Suddenly, I was faced with the prospect of the same gulag I remembered from my family’s trip to the zoo. But this time, I had an out.
“I’m going to catch an Uber from here,” I said, pointing to zoo’s eastern exit.
I left poor Meryl, Dave and Nomi to trudge back up that hill. As for Gylie, well, she was already back in the stroller and starting to drift to sleep.
Nomi, if you ever want to commiserate about how lazy younger siblings are, I am here for you.
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