Zoos are complicated. It is difficult to overcome the visceral image of animals kept in cages, knowing the freedom of movement they may otherwise have. Further, some zoos in the past have been known to be abusive or cruel to the animals they keep in captivity. As zoos have modernized, however, they have become important locations for conservation and research, aiding in the continued existence of certain endangered species. Whatever your opinion on the ethics of zoos (and there is plenty of reason to support either opinion) they are a common activity of tourists. This past weekend I had the opportunity to visit the National Zoo in Washington D.C.
The National Zoo is part of the Smithsonian Institution. This is inarguably one of the greatest museum installments in the world. Whether through pillage or donation, the Smithsonian contains many of the world’s great artifacts. Most importantly, the Smithsonian is free. Growing up in the Washington D.C. area, I was fortunate to always be able to attend these free museums. It was frankly shocking to me when I first experienced a museum which required money. There is so much value in the free spread of knowledge and information, and that the spineless garbage people who make the rules in the District haven’t found a way to monetize the museums is a gift to the necessary expansion of knowledge.
The day that I arrived at the National Zoo, I was accompanied by my mother and my Fiancé. Unfortunately, it was a hot day. This was problematic. The animals were less likely to be active, and who could blame them. I know that my relationship to heat is quite negative. This may be due to me sharing my build with bears, but I know that my natural habitat would most fittingly be the tundra or temperate forests; a man as hairy as me was not made for the humidity and warmth of the central East Coast. My Fiancé and mother were fine with the warmer weather. They do not have the protective layer of blubber that I have.
We began by descending into the Asian trail. Almost none of the Asian trail animals were out. One of my favorite animals in D.C. is the sloth bear, who has his home at the beginning of the trail. It is my belief that were I to enter the enclosure and embrace the sloth bear, that he would be my friend. And be honest with yourself; is there anything more enticing than the idea of getting a hearty hug from a bear? It is my dream, one which I have yet to live out; one which may be my end. Sadly, he was wisely trying to stay cool, and not present for the potential of a charged embrace.
One animal that was willing to be in the sun was the star of the National Zoo, the panda. The National Zoo has always had pandas, and as a child I didn’t realize how rare that actually is. There are only twelve total pandas in zoos in the United States. Pandas are quite goofy animals. Despite having the traits of their ferocious ursidae brethren, they appear totally docile; content to lounge and play. I find that their near constant consumption of food in between lying down is concerningly relatable.
Following the panda’s display of adorable laziness, we happened upon the elephant exhibit. The elephants lead me to have conflicting emotions. They are of exceptional intelligence, and I don’t know that they did anything to deserve being imprisoned. More worrying is that they may have the mental capacity to understand how limited their movement is. The exhibit in D.C. is quite well put together, and they have over the years made an effort to expand it to increase the elephants’ space. These animals are so beautiful, so calm; it is difficult to not feel a hint of guilt at keeping them in a caged area.
The elephant display led to an exhibit that I am not conflicted on. The great ape house. I can hardly bare to enter the great ape house. These primates are clearly aware of their capture. You can see the boredom in their eyes, the questioning of their circumstance. It is difficult for me to watch animals this intelligent be prodded by unempathetic people tapping their cages and yelling at them.
On a much lighter note the final noteworthy exhibit we visited were the big cats. While big cats could potentially be happier outside of the zoo, they seem to share the housecat’s ability to be content. This lack of ambition aids in their happiness; all they need is food and a place to sleep. The lions were particularly playful with each other, slapping a ball around like an oversized tabby.
The National Zoo is an enjoyable day out, with a good variety of animals, and a decent track record towards their treatment. I would recommend it to anyone spending time in the District, and with interest in animals. If zoos can help anyone experience more empathy for animals then they will at least have accomplished some good. Four stars.