Camp Martin Travels

These entries will be a combination of historical day trips, graduate level travel courses, and just little stops along the way. I have been teaching 8th grade American History for over 25 years. I am also a Civil War Reenactor and have traveled to Germany and Austria with several groups of exchange students and written about our adventures. Please check all my posts by using the monthly Blog Archive tabs shown below. I have posted over 150 Blog Episodes since 2009... Please explore them all!

Sunday, March 4, 2012

National Zoo in D.C.

Smithsonian's National Zoo
Washington D.C.

Lemur Island Falls
It was the middle of summer and my wife and I decided to take the family south, back to the Washington D.C. area to try and see a few things we missed on our last trip to the nation's capital.  My daughter Katelyn is a true zoo junkie and unfortunately for her, our last attempt to see the Smithsonian's National Zoo ended in failure.  During an overnight weekend stay, Katelyn had listed the zoo as her number one priority.  The Lincoln Monument?  Never heard of it!  We were all in the metro subway station with purchased subway tickets in hand, waiting for the metro to arrive to take us to the zoo.  However, the famed mass transit system suddenly announced over the loudspeaker they had experienced a massive mainline electrical failure.  After waiting for at least a half hour without any signs of change, we decided to cut our losses and try for the zoo during our next trip to the District of Columbia.  Katelyn was more than a little disappointed, really looking forward to seeing the famous giant panda bears in person.  However, it was not to be until two summers later when we decided to take a day trip to hit the zoo we missed and see the prized pandas.

Golden Lion Tamarins
We decided to take the wild card of mass transit out of the equation and drive directly from home to the zoo.  The kids had their electrical entertainment long-distance driving devices fully charged, my wife had her novel to read, and I had the GPS dialed in on the chosen target with a full tank of gas on board... We're off!  A few hours later we were approaching the zoo through impressive Connecticut Avenue, which was lined with elaborate apartment buildings that looked far beyond the level of a teacher's salary.  Traffic was congested and the final five miles to our destination was the longest part of the trip.  However, all the stop and go progress allowed me to safely look around behind the wheel without fear of getting punched by my ever watchful wife, who often uses corporal punishment as a means of keeping me focused on the road ahead.  Signs for the National Zoo finally came into view and we began to drive around the perimeter of the grounds looking for available parking.  We pulled into a space within Lot "E" and made our way toward the zoo entrance.  Admission to the zoo is free but it costs $20 to park your car, which still isn't a bad deal for a family of four to be entertained for an afternoon. 

Star of the National Zoo
It was strange to enter the zoo by walking right through the gate without inspection or paying an entrance fee.  The zoo seemed like any other town park but with really cool exotic wildlife from around the world on display from behind protective fences.  We started up the main path called Olmstead Walk that slightly went up hill and curved out of site.  It was becoming a hot day as we approached the late morning hours and although it was great to stretch our legs after such a long drive in the car, the path continued to go uphill.  Where were the panda bears anyway?  We took a short break by Lemur Island by a large beautiful cascading waterfall, which became very inviting in the growing humidity.  We got a visitors map and soon discovered that the Giant Panda Habitat area was at the far end of the other side of the park.  My wife's adrenaline was starting to kick in as she was determined to see the Panda Habitat before any other exhibit.  She was out front, scaling Olmstead Walk, which was becoming more like Olmstead Climb as the grade of the hill continued to increase with every step.  The kids and I were struggling to keep up, helplessly along for the ride in her wake. 

Bamboo / It's What's for Dinner
We finally reached the summit where the Panda House lay before us just a few yards from the main gate's visitor's center.  If I would have had a flag along, I would have jammed it into the ground for effect.  Note to self... Next time, arrive really early and find a parking space near the front entrance so you can go right into the Panda House and then walk slowly downhill to see the other exhibits, without risk of heart failure.  We took time to hydrate ourselves with liquids and quickly took refuge inside the air conditioned Panda House to recover.  My wife's determination paid off as we arrived in time to see the giant panda bears have their morning feeding.  A large group of people with cameras popping were crowding around a glass enclosed space where one of the pandas was licking some type of gold liquid that resembled honey from a large round plastic cone.  He was curled up in a corner of the exhibit with his back up against the glass much to the disappointment of the frustrated paparazzi just a few inches away on the other side of his glass backrest.  The panda continued to leisurely consume his breakfast and appeared completely oblivious to the plight of all the photographers (self included) all hoping for that one great shot worthy of National Geographic Magazine.

Elephant Trek Trails
I was able to get some of the best shots of a panda bear's backside in the history of photography but was hoping for at least one frontal shot of a panda's face.  I'm sure the panda was fully aware of the fact he was denying the public of what they wanted and enjoyed purposefully having his back turned to his audience.  It's probably an ongoing inside joke between the pandas after the zoo closes for the night.  However, patience is a virtue... When the second course of brunch was served in the form of bamboo, the giant panda got up on a perch, front and center before the suddenly excited crowd, who instantly began jockeying for position for their prized shots that were sure to be worthy of becoming screen savers and wallpaper for their home computers.  The giant panda seemed to be absorbed in people watching as he steadily chewed his bamboo shoots, gazing at the spectacle on the other side of the glass.  We stayed watching the panda for about an hour afraid to leave and miss their next act.  There was also an outdoor panda exhibit of natural habitat but it seemed to be empty in the growing heat of the day.  All in all, our giant panda experience was giant success, with many prized shots captured to preserve the memory.  It was well worth the climb to the top of Mount Olmstead!  Good call Mom! 

Great Apes / Gorilla Grove
We started our descent down the main path at a much more relaxed pace this time, to explore the other exhibits that were located on smaller pathways that shot off in different directions.  We saw a few elephants from a distance, checked out some exotic birds, and then headed off to find some lunch at nearby Panda Plaza.  The food court was packed and seating was at a premium.  The lines were long and the prices were tourist attraction sky-high.  I got in the endless line to order while the rest of the family hunted the area for four open seats together like a pack of lions hunting for a newborn wildebeest calf on the grasslands of the Savannah.  After about a half hour wait, both parties were successful with food and seats procured.  The food was your standard institutional burgers and fries that provided calories but not much else.  A portion of the food sale revenues went to help care for the animals so it was kind of like a forced donation to a worthy cause, which somewhat helped us digest our overpriced lunch. Oh well, we didn't come here for the food... Where's the monkeys?

Mother and Newborn Bonding
We went through the Small Primate House and watched the playful golden lion tamarins that were bright orange in color and easy to see within the green canopy.  The tufted-eared marmosets reminded me of the practical-joking monkey that was often present in the old black and white episodes of the Little Rascals I watched when I was a kid.  Next we headed off to see the large primates and found a large crowd gathered around the edge of a large circular cement wall that was an outdoor habitat called Gorilla Cove.  It was the other key highlight of our visit.  There were multiple gorillas of various ages wandering freely within the large submerged natural space.  I soon noticed a mother and her newborn  perched within the center of the space eating bamboo.  Unlike the congested Panda House, Gorilla Cove was so large and well designed, everyone was able to get a good spot to view the action below.  It was great to see them in action roaming about the outdoor space that resembled the jungle of their natural habitat.  I was able to zoom in and get some great pictures of the pair with my camera.  At one point a group of kids made a noise that spooked some of the younger males who suddenly charged toward the students at amazing speed, pounding their chests with their fists.  It made an unforgettable sound and really startled much of the crowd (except me) who quickly backed away!

Right Turn Clyde
The primate show continued indoors with several playful orangutans who climbed with amazing ease to the heights of the exhibit.  They were able to freely pass from their indoor space to an outdoor habitat, where they could soak up the sun.  We stopped off several times to do the mandatory shopping and make additional contributions to the funding of the zoo.  There were three areas of the zoo going through major construction and renovation work during our visit, including a large expansion of the Elephant Trails area.  Your donation dollars at work!  The National Zoo was first created in 1889 by Congress and became part of the Smithsonian Institute the following year.  Over time, the mission of the zoo transformed from an institution that displayed exotic and endangered animals to one that became dedicated to study, animal science, and conservation.  In 1972 the zoo acquired their first two giant pandas from China on loan named Mei Xiang and Tian Tian.  The pandas have been the stars of the zoo for the past forty years.  The zoo continues to expand their facilities and develop outreach educational programs for people across the globe.   The zoo has a second location at Fort Royal, Virginia that serves as a research and conservation center.  Together the two facilities have a collection of over 2,000 animals containing members from 400 different species. 

Rain Forest Aquarium
Well we were almost at the bottom of the hill where we first entered the zoo and it was time to start making our way to the end of the exhibits.  Our final stop took us through the Kid's Farm of farm animals to a large building known as Amazonia where the tropical rain forests of South America were on display.  The interior of the building was full of tropical plants and trees with waterways full of fish at their base.  The highlight of the exhibits was the huge walk-through aquarium that contained enormous fish including several giant arapaimas that slowly made their way from one end of the Amazon River Basin aquarium to the other.  It was really cool.  The building was on multiple levels so you could view the habitat from the heights of the tree canopy to the water filled swamps down below.  It was really cool and a fun way to end our visit.  We headed back to the car and made an exit toward our next destination of Georgetown where we hoped to visit D.C. Cupcakes, which was the other item at the top of Katelyn's agenda.  Who's up for a ridiculously expensive cupcake?  ME!

Please See all my Additional Photos of the National Zoo at...

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