Monday, October 24, 2016

Into the wild in Washington, D.C.

While the nation focused this fall on who will occupy the White House, Washington, D.C.’s wilder residents were roaring for attention.

Elephants and donkeys are all over this city, but they are also literally walking around our nation’s capital for anyone to see – right there near the panda bears.

When it comes to visiting Washington, D.C., the monuments and museums take center stage, and rightfully so. Especially for first-timers, that initial glimpse of the Washington Monument or the Lincoln Memorial or any of the National Mall’s landmarks, is a much-anticipated moment; and exploring the halls of the Smithsonian museums to see iconic American symbols, from airplanes to ruby slippers, is unforgettable. And as someone who worked in the city for years, I know that the excitement rarely wanes with multiple visits. For me, every glimpse of the Capitol’s magnificent dome still elicits a proud, patriotic spine tingle. 

But despite all of Washington’s tourist must-dos, one spot rates at the top of my list: the Smithsonian National Zoo. Sprawling but with an intimate, compact feel, the National Zoo has undergone considerable work over recent years, adding new animals and updated environments. The result is a thoroughly enjoyable zoological experience for all ages. The array of wildlife is diverse and the commitment to conservation is apparent everywhere from the elephant house to the panda pen. And like many of the city’s top attractions, it is free of charge.

I first fell in love with the Smithsonian National Zoo when I was a graduate student finishing up my degree in Washington, D.C. The housing offered by my program was located on Connecticut Avenue, a fair distance from any of the city’s main downtown monuments and museums, but just a few blocks away from D.C.’s best attraction.

I relished early morning, or early evening walks or jogs through the zoo. I would take any opportunity to get in before the gates closed and make my way around the park, down the main thoroughfare past cheetahs, zebras, elephants and various apes. Circling down around the lions and tigers, donkeys and meerkats, I would then loop down to the American animal pavilion to my favorite stop: the otters.

There really is nothing like having a zoo to yourself; especially during cooler dusk hours when the D.C. humidity subsides (sometimes) and prompts the animals to come out and about.

Ten years later, I make it a point to visit the zoo whenever I’m in the District. On a recent trip, I had the luxury of getting in before closing. I started in the newer Asia Trail section and was disappointed that many of the animals had seemingly tucked away already for the evening. Even my otter friends – both in the Asia section and further down in the America section – were nowhere to be found. The panda house was closed and only one elephant lumbered about the open-air enclosure.

Frustrated, I walked over to the big cat ring, where the lions and tigers make their home on hilly tableaus. Not much to see in the first two, but as I came around the circle to one of the lion sections, I bumped into a large crowd.

Several lions were standing at the edge of the water down below in the enclosure. They were staring, hungrily up at the crowd. A woman, with a dog on a leash, was laughing. The lions were making jerky motions and noises, clearly agitated and appearing almost as if they were ready to pounce. They were watching the dog. For the most part, the dog ignored them but when he finally caught wind of the predators below, his anxiety exploded.

The scene was surreal. A nervous dog, obviously in no danger perched high above a pride of lions, obviously in no position to attack. But the dog didn’t know this and yipped and bounced. And the lions didn’t know this, and proceeded to formulate a strategy for hunting and consuming the canine. It was a strange morphing of nature and I was lucky enough to catch a glimpse (and some video).

The experience wasn’t one that could be replicated ever again, which is why I enjoy the National Zoo above D.C.’s other attractions. Whereas most of the monuments are satisfying in their steadfast symbolism, at the zoo you rarely see the same thing twice and you’re guaranteed a wild time.