What makes a great zoo? Lots of animals? A lush wooded setting? Natural looking habitats? Hands-on exhibits that teach kids about animals and the ecology? Affordable prices so everyone in the family can go? I think a great zoo does all these and more...that's what you get at the National Zoo, one of the best zoos in America!
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The story behind this zoo stretches back to 1889, when 163 acres were carved out of a hilly, heavily wooded section of Rock Creek Park -- the huge urban park that twists its way across much of Northwest Washington. The zoo is actually part of the Smithsonian Institution, which keeps an educational and scientific focus to the facility.
The focus on science and education can be seen through the numerous "lab" type exhibit areas. For example, near the primate areas is a display that delves into the thought processes and touches on controversial topics like whether primates can be taught language, tool use, and similar mental processes once thought to be solely the domain of humans. Not just cute animals, but a perspective on what it means to be human, and the ethical implications of animals that might be closer to us in the evolutionary cycle than we can comfortably handle.
If you read my review of the San Diego Zoo, you know that high admission prices for public zoos really irritate me. Zoos like the National Zoo are true national treasures and a real breath of fresh air as you pass through the gates without having to pay so much as a thin dime. Yep. Admission is totally free, always, for everyone. What's that? A public facility that's actually open to the public? What a wonderfully novel concept!
Making the place even more accessible are the convenient hours. The zoo is open until 8pm, although most of the animal buildings close at about 4:30. Still plenty of time to walk through the wooded trails of the zoos and check out the outdoor animals.
The National Zoo is big, with thousands of animals -- many housed in natural habitats. One of my favorites is the polar bear exhibit with its big pond (wonder if its refrigerated) complete with fake icebergs. There's also an eerie bat cave, and a wetlands area, complete with herons and many other types of waterfowl. In a regional theme, there are places like the Australian pavilion where you can see all your favorite marsupials, from the pesky kangaroo to the cuddly koala.
For many years the zoo's star attractions were the pandas, Hsing-Hsing and Ling-Ling. Sadly, both bears passed away in recent years, but I've heard that the Peoples Republic of China may send another pair of pandas to the zoo. In some ways, I wish they wouldn't, after all, with so few of the great bears left in the wild, it's a shame to have the few remaining pairs locked up in zoos...but I digress.
Although the zoo is open all year round (except Christmas day), the summer months are unquestionably the busiest times, when hordes of tourists descend on the city during it's hot and humid worst. I think the best time to go to the zoo is in late September when temperatures have dropped a little bit, and the crowds have mostly gone home to Nebraska, but the zoo is still open its extended summer hours.
Handicapped visitors might find some of the steeper trails to be a bit of a challenge, but the zoo doesn't have a lot of obstacles. Foreign visitors will appreciate the availability of maps and guidebooks in various languages, including spanish, french, german, and others.
The zoo is located in upper northwest Washington at about 3000 Connecticut Avenue. Don't count on being able to find parking on a weekend. Take the Metro red line to Woodley Park - Zoo. Locals know you can avoid Connecticut Avenue traffic and cut into back entrances, but mum's the word...
What a Beast!
The National Zoo is, in my view, what a zoo should be. It's a place that combines education and science, blending it into an attractive woodsy setting. It's a place with a good sense of mission, and a place that's accessible to everybody, from local kids to foreign visitors. With it's beautiful wooded setting, large variety of animals, and its focus on education, the National Zoo is really a world-class facility, and is justly one of the most popular attractions in the nation's capital, not to mention my favorite zoo. To the Bat Cave!
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