The National Zoo is Amazing.


I saw little otters! Lots and lots of them. They looked at me and made squeaks!

(Asian small-clawed otters)

I saw a well-trained elephant who wandered over to a drain in his exhibit and peed straight into it.  (I do not know if they trained him specifically to do that, or he learned it himself)

Also I saw a panda eat bamboo for breakfast, a cheetah gazing longingly at the zebras in the next enclosure (really, zoo designers?), a red panda asleep in a tree, an octopus getting fed, and some assorted other animals.

Going very early in the morning is definitely the right way to go!  I got there as the exhibits were opening and the animals just coming out; low crowds, good views.  As I was leaving, the hordes of schoolchildren increased.

 OH! and the orangutans climbed across the people-walkway on their high-rope walkway thing it was so cool!
it was this:
ne of them stopped in the middle and contemplatively gazed at the people, resting his chin on his elbow, just staring at us as we stared at him. (Or her?).  It was super. The website says “if they poop on you from overhead, staff is prepared to help you clean up.”

The one that looked at us was probably Bonnie:

Also I saw a huge-ass Komodo dragon, just sittin’.
I accidentally walked past the spider exhibit and DID NOT LIKE.  Giant bird-eating tarantula: NOoooo!

Then I went back again later:
I saw teeny tiny titi monkeys, and spectacled bear cubs! baby ones!

And some different otters, a wallaby, those rare Przwalski horses, sleepy lions,
orangs on the o-line again; this time, Batang, wacky freshwater stingrays, lemurs chillin, turtles.

Also, the nat’l zoo is supremely well-designed. It’s nicer for people than any other zoo I’ve been to (and presumably for the animals as well).  Also I forgot that it’s FREE so you can just wander on in there.  There are concessions, but they seem less obnoxious than other zoos I’ve been to. And they have shower-mister things where you can press a button and get sprayed with water. Whee.

What’s your favorite zoo?  What do you like about zoos?


23 Responses to “The National Zoo is Amazing.”

  1. plantingourpennies Says:

    Oooh I love otters! We have some in our backyard pond right now, coincidentally!

    I like the national zoo (a friend of ours lives in Woodley Park, so I go pretty much every time I’m in DC). The gorillas are adorable and disgusting, but I love them just the same. My favorite zoo of all time, though, is probably the Miami zoo. It was rebuilt completely in the 90’s after Hurricane Andrew destroyed it, and the habitats are so HUGE that it doesn’t feel like the animals are in cages at all. (That’s one of the things that saddens me about the national zoo – how small the enclosures are for most of the animals.) But in Miami, the enclosures are designed so the part that the animals like to come near is easy to view… plus you can rent a bike cart (think a hybrid between a golf cart and bicycle) and ride around from exhibit to exhibit since there are over 7miles of paths. I don’t think the Miami zoo gets enough credit for how awesome it is since it’s so far from the more touristy-trap areas of town.

  2. Belle Says:

    Ohhh. Hard question. I grew up thinking San Diego was the norm and was appalled when I discovered that other zoos used cages. Haven’t been there in ages, but it’s still vying for #1. Singapore has a great zoo too, so that’s the other contender. Have not been to national; now you’ve put it on my must-do list.

  3. Steph Says:

    I’m so glad you went and loved it! I think the cheetahs next to the zebras might be a new feature; I don’t remember that being the case when I was a kid, but I could be wrong.

    Growing up near DC, my favorite has to be the National Zoo. Granted, I’ve been to only 1 or 2 other zoos…but we went to the National Zoo so often in the summers when I was a kid that it’s got a special place in my heart. We used to love seeing the Orangs on the Oline too :) A fair number of the animals do get decent space, but it’s not exactly distributed fairly. They’re slowly expanding some of the enclosures – the new Asia Trail might be open now – the plan included expanded space for the elephants and pandas and a couple other animals.

    The free part is awesome – although parking is ridiculously expensive for anyone thinking of that route. I think they might get enough donations on their own that they don’t have to go to the “suggested admission” model that most of the Smithsonian museums are having to adopt now. Hopefully that will last.

  4. Dr. Virago Says:

    Oh, that O-Line sounds *fabulous*. I bet the Os and the humans alike love it (clearly you did!) and that’s key. I was involved in an Orangutan study at the LA zoo (yeah, this was during my quarter-life crisis, when I took a class on animal behavior in zoos and learned enough research methodology to come on board as a volunteer researcher at the LA Zoo) that studied both the Os’ behavior and the vistors’ behavior in the O’s new habitat. The new habitat, as opposed to the old, allowed all sorts of close-up O-human interaction (which the Os love — they *love* watching people!), but also gave the Os space to be alone when they wanted it, with lots of plantings and things made to look like the trees and rocks of their home environment in the space. The new space also was made to replicate or blend better with their natural environments, even down to the tools and toys, so that all the old plastic and cardboard stuff and old, colorfulr blankets they had in the old environment were gone, and replaced with things that blended with the environment better (burlap blankets and big leaves, gourds, etc.). They still got the same enrichment — digging peanut butter out of a gourd vs. out of an empty cereal box — but it looked better to the visitors. And that was key, because this study and others showed that visitors are happier when the animals look more “natural.” They also reportedly thought the toys and objects in the old exhibit were trash, and that made them sad. And sad visitors don’t come back, and the zoo loses revenue. Zoos are an interesting intersection of natural sciences, social sciences, and marketing.

    I just visited the Milwaukee zoo a couple of weeks ago and was impressed with it. They have bonobos! I’d never seen bonobos in person before! And so many kinds of bears! Plus, they have a manta ray exhibit where you can pet the rays. I hadn’t seen that outside of the Long Beach Aquarium before. Pretty cool! I also liked the forested, park-like setting of the zoo, which is a lot like LA, too. (I think they’re both 60s-era zoos, iirc.)

    Though it is smaller and older (1930s), I’m always impressed with the Toledo Zoo. It can’t compete exactly with the big zoos in terms of the breadth of animals it has (no bonobos, only two kinds of bears), but its exhibit space is impressive. And it clearly has successful breeding programs — it seems there are always baby polar bears, African elephants, tigers, and monkeys and apes galore at that zoo. And the Os seem as happy there as at LA. They, too, get to interact with the audience — they can press a button and shower them with water (if the human is standing in the right, well-marked place) in the hot summer months!

    Oh, and about this: “a cheetah gazing longingly at the zebras in the next enclosure (really, zoo designers?).” That’s apparently a thing in zoo design. Our tour of the Milwaukee zoo said they were one of the first to do it. If it’s done right, the prey animal can’t see the predator, so isn’t stressed, but the predator animal is stimulated. (In Milwaukee, the predator is in an enclosed above — up the side of hill — and the matching prey tend not to look *up* for their predators, and even if they did, the sight-lines are such that they wouldn’t see the predator.) Since enrichment and stimulation for large predators is really difficult for zoos, it’s seen as a positive for the animals. Plus it’s also a positive for most visitors — a stimulated predator animal is an active one — giving the visitors something to see, and is usually one that’s not exhibiting “stereotypical behavior” (prison-madness style pacing, for example) or sleeping out of boredom. And happy patrons means repeat visits, which means more revenue for the animals. It’s the circle of life. :)

    And the National Zoo *is* pretty awesome, though I haven’t been there since the early 80s. Must go back!

    God, look how much I wrote. Maybe I should’ve taken that quarter-life crisis more seriously!

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Well, the cheetahs were indeed moving around, so…
      The orangs get to move to a building called “think tank” where they do surprisingly sophisticated cognitive experiments. They can also take naps, watch visitors in the yard, or go over to their other building, where they usually sleep (But not always; some of them sleep in the think tank occasionally). It’s all up to them.

      • Dr. Virago Says:

        That is *awesome*. It sounds perfect for Os! And yeah, the behavior enrichment for the LA Os included complex games and puzzles (often off-display, but some disguised in those gourds). Os can do multi-step problem-solving! Anyway, the behavioral scientists often brought the puzzles in backpacks and duffles, so any time one of the Os saw a visitor getting something out of a backpack or other bag, he or she watched with *great* interest.

  5. Dr. E Says:

    The Omaha Henry Doorly Zoo.

  6. chacha1 Says:

    I haven’t been to all that many zoos, but am a fan of the San Diego Zoo. If for no other reason, because of the restaurant at the bottom of the ravine that has lobster mac ‘n’ cheese.

    I think a modern zoo is a serious and effective tool for conservation and ecology education, and as such worth supporting. That said, I think most *private* zoos should be shut down, as they seem to be prone to animal hoarding, unscrupulous breeding practices, bad sanitation, and poor animal/human safety practices.

    On my serious want list is a visit to the woodland zoo in Seattle. And a visit to the new facility of the Big Bear Alpine Zoo (formerly Moonridge Zoo).

  7. Julie Reynolds Says:

    I have been to many zoos and the National Zoo definitely gets high marks, as does San Diego. Another favorite is the Columbus Zoo which was directed by Jack Hanna for a long while (he’s now Director Emeritus). They do a great job making sure the animals are physically and emotionally healthy while still making sure they are accessible to visitors. We see something cool every time we go, which is pretty often since we are members.

  8. femmefrugality Says:

    I love that zoo!!! And otters! I just about peed my pants when I saw one in the wild in Wisconsin once on a xcountry road trip. It’s the little things.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I got to the zoo so early that the otters had just come out of their den for the morning, and they were all swirling around cheeping and marking their territory and playing and splashing. It was totes adorbz.

  9. Allyson Says:

    Ooh, great post! I grew up with the Milwaukee Zoo which made me want to be a keeper when I grew up. Ended up being an animal researcher, which is a better fit for me, but being a city girl the zoo was my best link to biology. I interned at the Detroit Zoo, which has an excellent amphibian house and had just opened a neat polar bear exhibit in the mid-2000s. The San Diego Zoo is a destination someday. Have to put in a plug for Animal Kingdom, which although it’s owned by Disney and is therefore pretty corporate, it has the money to do some of the best enrichment and zoo research in the country. Also, very right on going early to avoid the school crowds. I used to go to the zoo in the middle of the Wisconsin winter, when there were no crowds and plenty of active animals.

    • Dr. Virago Says:

      Allyson, you’re living the life I was exploring in my quarter-life crisis (and actually the one I originally thought I’d lead — how I ended up an English prof is a long story)!

  10. oilandgarlic Says:

    I like the San Diego zoo and Wild Animal Park. I really dislike the small, sad zoos with bored animals in small cages!

  11. becca Says:

    I love love LOVE otters!
    I never went to zoos very much with my family because they made my Dad Sad. We did go to the Shed Aquarium when I was a munchkin, and I like it. Nowadays they have a lot more monkeys and things, which are more… ethically complicated. But poison dart frogs! And sharks! And all manner of Jellyfishes and things!
    The last zoo I went to was Brookfield, I think, and the gorilla exhibit made me sad. But most of the rest of it was pretty fun to see my kidlet respond to.

    I think an orangutans-spraying-people exhibit sounds awesome! Maybe we’ll try to visit the Toledo zoo. We’ve been driving through Toledo a lot lately.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      oooh I went to the Shedd Aquarium on many a field trip! The part I remember most is the “tide pool” where you can touch a starfish. And the infinity-edge pool that makes it look like the whales are swimming in the lake.

  12. What Now? Says:

    Ooh, the National Zoo is my favorite zoo ever — so glad you got to visit it!

  13. thephroogaljason Says:

    I haven’t been to a zoo in decades. The last I remember was someplace out in New Orleans when I went during spring break and just wanted to get out of the Quarter.

  14. myscientificlife Says:

    OK, now the National Zoo is on my to do list I second the Columbus Zoo! It’s in a fairly small space, but they utilize it really well.

    If we are going to include aquariums, I like both the Shedd and the Newport. They both have the fish I study! (though both are fairly small displays)

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