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Highlights of The National Zoo: A Washington D.C. Family Day Trip


The National Zoo: See the Pandas for Free!

The Smithsonian National Zoological Park, commonly known as the National Zoo, is a great place to take the kids when they need a break from all the monuments, museums and historical sites in Washington, D.C.

Founded in 1889, the zoo is about a 20-minute ride from the National Mall on the city's subway system, the Metro. The zoo also offers parking for a fee.

One of the most-attractive aspects to the zoo is that it is free! That's a huge plus when you realize that many other zoos are now charging quite a bit of money for admission.

We toured the zoo on a recent visit to Washington, D.C.

National Zoo Giant Panda

National Zoo Giant Panda

The Zoo's Giant Pandas, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian

The Highlight of the Visit!

The zoo's main attraction are its two Giant Pandas, and they are well worth the trip. The pandas, named Mei Xiang (''Beautiful Fragrance'') and Tian Tian (''More and More'') were quite interesting to see, though all they did while we were there was sit and eat.

That's not all that surprising, because the animals' main food is bamboo, which doesn't have much nutrition. The zoo says pandas in captivity also get sugar cane, rice gruel, a special high-fiber biscuit, carrots, apples, and sweet potatoes, but while we were there the only thing the two animals did was sit and break apart bamboo sticks to feed. For more information on Giant Pandas, see Giant Pandas.

The funny thing is that each panda sat with its back to us, as if they really didn't want to be bothered. We could see their faces on closed-circuit TV, so it wasn't a total loss.

Outside the area where the two pandas were sitting is a quite extensive exhibit about how endangered the animals are, and how little has been done to protect the animals and their habitat (which consists in the wild of only a small range in China).

National Zoo Think Tank

National Zoo Think Tank

The Think Tank

Testing How, and If, Animals Think

One very interesting part of the zoo was the building known as the Think Tank, dedicated to researching how animals think. Or don't think, as the case may be.

Flexibility is a key in the definition of thinking, the introduction to the exhibit explains. For instance, a newborn duckling will latch onto the first large moving object it sees, whether it's the bird's mother, or a dog, or even a rolling ball. That's called imprinting and isn't considered thinking.

Beavers, however, know when to plug their dams and when to unplug them to keep the water level where they want it when ice occurs. That flexibility would indicate some thinking, the exhibit says.

Researchers are doing experiments with the zoo's orangutans to see how much they actually think, and there is a long video showing some of the experiments. Not to worry, all the research is safe. The animals seem to be enjoying getting rewarded for taking part.

The exhibit is in a neat older building topped with some very nice animal statues (see photo).


The Red Panda, Caracal and Przewalski's Horse

Less-Common Animals That Can Be Seen

We have gone to many zoos across the United States, South America and Europe, so whenever we visit a new one we tend to seek out the animals we haven't seen before. The Giant Pandas were the obvious target this time, but there were a few others that the National Zoo had that we either had never seen before or only just rarely seen.

For instance, this may have been the first time we caught Przewalski's Horse. The endangered animal once ranged across central Asia, specifically China and Mongolia. Once extinct in the wild, the horses have been reintroduced in a Mongolian animal sanctuary. These big, bruising horses are unique in that they have never been domesticated. Most horses in the world that are seen as wild are actually feral, having been domesticated in the past. but not Pzerwalski's (Sheh-VAL-ski's) horse. It's always been wild.

The caracal is another animal that I don't remember, though that may be because of the name. It was alternatively known as the African Lynx (but it isn't a lynx), so I may have seen the cat under that name in a different zoo. It's a handsome cat (see photo) that seemed quite content with just relaxing on a rock during our visit.

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We also saw a Red Panda, which despite its name isn't closely related to Giant Pandas at all. Instead, the animal is in its own family, and appears to be closer to a raccoon that a Giant Panda. Two things it has in common with its namesake: 1) The animal is a bamboo eater, 2) The animal also wouldn't turn around so I could see its face!

national zoo elephant

national zoo elephant

Elephants at a Distance, Bear Viewing Restricted

The Zoo is Undergoing Renovations

A fairly large section right in the middle of the zoo is under renovation now, with the sea lion and seals exhibition closed.

The elephant exhibition is undergoing a large rehab that started in 2006. The upgrade will give the zoo's Asian elephants an environment more like the wild while enabling zoo-goers to get some good close-up views of the animals. At least that's what the zoo's website says. As it was, we could only get a glimpse of one elephant, and that was at a far distance.

Because of the work being done the bears are actually cut off from the main paths of the zoo, and to see them you have to wind your way all around the park to a lonely corner. And, unfortunately, they are only out on weekends. We were there on a Saturday, but didn't make it in time. They had already gone in by the time we got there.

Children's Books About the National Zoo

Have you Toured the National Zoo?

national zoo map

national zoo map

My family and I really enjoyed our tour of the National Zoo. Have you ever visited the zoo, or do you plan to? If yes, what did you think? If no, why not?

Giant Pacific Octopus at the National Zoo

This short video was shot by my daughter, who also chose the accompanying music. The keeper told us the octopus is estimated to be about one year old.

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Our Washington D.C. Tour!

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I hope you enjoyed this lens as much as we enjoyed visiting the National Zoo. Please share your thoughts on the zoo, pandas, this lens or anything else that's relevant.

Thanks for visiting!

What are Your Thoughts on the National Zoo?

TerriCarr on May 10, 2014:

It is a great place. And now there is another new panda....Bao Bao....Mei Xiang's girl cub born August 2013. Still looks very cub-like and cute.

blue22d on February 07, 2014:

Great lens. I would love to visit - especially would like to see the pandas.

Raymond Eagar on August 06, 2013:

The kids must enjoy it .

Lorna from USA on July 05, 2013:

I wish we were able to visit the National Zoo during our visit at DC, it was a quick vacation. I hope to see it next time.

TanoCalvenoa on June 13, 2013:

IF my family was to go to DC, then we would want to see this zoo for sure!

ericsdorsey on January 21, 2013:

Love zoos. Our family has a membership and we go year round.

MaryMitchell on January 21, 2013:

Zoos are great as long as the animals' happiness, health and welfare are the foremost concern!

anonymous on January 17, 2013:

Zoos are fun!

sunlightseer on October 26, 2012:

Zoos are wonderful places if done right. I'd love to visit the National Zoo sometime.

Deb Kingsbury from Flagstaff, Arizona on October 26, 2012:

I remember visiting the National Zoo many years ago, and I remember that I loved it, especially the big ape sitting with his back up against the glass, turning his head to look at me every minute or so. But I didn't recall that it was a free zoo. I hope to visit again sometime.

Jen withFlash on August 31, 2012:

Very cool lens! Love the pics!

Cynthia Sylvestermouse from United States on July 12, 2012:

I love zoos! It has been many years since I have been to the Washington DC zoo. It looks like they have made some really great improvements. Love you photos, especially the Caracal :) Such a beautiful cat!

Psychologist on June 21, 2012:

Not generally a big fan of zoos, but thumbs up to this one for adapting some of the enclosuers to make them a more natural environment

orange3 lm on June 05, 2012:

I have been to the National Zoo and it is a wonderful break from everything else in D.C.

squidkai1 on March 06, 2012:

Great lens thanks for sharing!

Missmerfaery444 on March 01, 2012:

Thank you for a great tour around the National Zoo! That's great that the zoo is free. We have a year pass for our local zoo here in England which makes it more affordable, as our toddler loves to visit. It makes such a great day out for the family.

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