A Certain Lack of Focus

Tuesday, October 30, 2007


While I was in Washington, the one thing I wanted to do above all else was visit the National Zoo. I went to three sessions the first day, four plus a critique the second. The day before the convention I did have some downtime, but by the time we got checked into the hotel and settled there wasn't much time to kill before we needed to register. I made it to the grocery store to stock up on granola bars and fruit, then crashed in bed to watch part of the crappier Willy Wonka. It rained all through the first three days, particularly on the third day (second convention day) which worried me, because if the trend continued even I, Oregon Duck blooded as I may be, wouldn't have wanted to brave constant downpour. Fortunately the last day of the convention was beautiful, I chucked my convention schedule aside (nothing interested me anyway) and set off for the zoo. It was a 30 minute walk from the hotel and, to my surprise, I was sweating by the time I got there. The sun was out, I wrapped my hoodie around my waist, walking comfortably in just a T-shirt. I was there from 12:45 or so to 4 pm.

Andrea, one of the girls from the Cauldron, was with me, and at her request our first stop was to see the Panda's. They didn't seem all that happy, but it was the first time either of us had ever seen one in person (at great distance, granted). Andrea wanted to go in the enclosure and cuddle with it. We both know better, but I have to admit, laying over the rock as he was, the Panda did really look just like a big floppy stuffed animal.

My first impression of the zoo was that it was kinda dinky. Sure, there were Pandas, but otherwise the size alone made it kind of disappointing. Finally, thinking we'd seen nearly everything, we took the last path available, guessing it would lead us to maybe another small exhibit, maybe just a different vantage point.

After crossing the bridge we realized how greatly we'd underestimated. This zoo is HUGE. Of course, as the National Zoo it had really better be, but it's amazing how hidden it is, how impossible it is to understand the scale from within. I'm still enamored with the Cleveland Zoo, don't get me wrong, but the Smithsonian Zoo really kicks its ass.

Cleveland does a pretty amazing zoo, the animals seem well cared for, there are tons of yearlong activities to get kids interested, a membership is cheap and pays for itself quickly. There are also a pretty good variety of animals and a pretty vast space. The zoo in DC though is just so much bigger, obviously better funded, and for crying out loud it's free. There is a subtle difference in the environments designed for the animals: I think those in Cleveland are just as carefully crafted, but in DC they're bigger which really does make a difference to the captives. The animals also just seem happier and healthier (except for the Panda which looked pretty depressed). I don't think that's necessarily because we aren't taking care of our animals, I think these animals are just younger. Our lions, especially the male, look pretty ancient by comparison. This may also be due simply because of the problem mentioned before; we just have less space to give each animal.

Something really cool the zoo in DC is working on right now is a project for the elephants. It sounds as if they're planning on building enclosed paths all through the zoo for the elephants to wander. That way they get a larger territory without turning the whole place into an elephant zoo. I think that's an incredible idea and I can't wait to hear how it turns out. In fact I'll probably be back in DC next year and I'm hoping they'll be well underway by then. Obviously I'll have to go back when it's finished, and see how the elephants are enjoying their paths.

Possibly my favorite exhibit wasn't even an animal. The zoo had a building called the "think tank," there were some assorted monkeys behind glass, but mostly the building was one of those learning exhibits, you know: the kind that have all these tiny wooden doors you pull aside to see the answers to trivia questions on the front? Well running all around the room there was tall glass shelving full of resin made, to scale, brains. I want this in my future library. Seriously, they had, maybe not every animal you can think of, but a good handful, to compare to the size of a human brain. I tried to get a picture but it didn't really turn out. The biggest brain was not surprisingly the blue whale, but it wasn't as large as I expected, only maybe three times, maybe four the size of a human brain. In fact if you averaged the size of the blue whale brain and a human brain you'd get the elephant brain, which, when you consider the relative sizes of a person, to an elephant, to a blue whale, is pretty interesting. Canines and Felines on the other hand had fairly small brains, again smaller than I would have expected. About the size of a fist (we're talking lions and tigers and wolves, not Fido and Socks). This was less surprising when I got a good look at a cat skull and was reminded how much of a cat head is probably 70 percent MOUTH and these creatures have much thicker skulls than we do. At any rate it was a fascinating exhibit and as I said, I will someday replicate it in my personal library.

There are a ton of things to see in DC, next time I'm there I want to see the Aerospace museum, natural history museum, art museum... but I think I'll have to make revisiting the zoo a priority. Andrea and I wandered, much more quickly than a family with children would, for over three hours and were unable to see all of it. We kept thinking we were near the end of our circle, then we'd see a sign to an area we hadn't even seen a hint of before. There were even sections we could see, but couldn't figure out how to get to, suggesting that we missed even more than we thought. The zoo was more than worth the wait, I'd like to go back soon. Next time I'll wear hiking boots.

1 comment:

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