Friday, August 26, 2011

I've Been Around the World and in the Washington Zoo

Actually it's the Smithsonian National Zoological Park, as mentioned on the banner at the Connecticut Ave. entrance on the warm afternoon of August 16. The prospect of an earthquake and then a hurricane wasn't on anyone's mind, I can assure you.

We didn't spend quite as long as we wanted for various logistical reasons, but we did take a look at a number of large animals and some smaller ones, especially in the Small Mammal House -- naked mole rats, meerkats, golden lion tamarins, lemurs, etc. -- where we lingered because of air conditioning.

We also experienced the full force of the zoo's panda cottage industry. Panda marketing begins with this innocuous bronze.

Since the zoo charges no admission, I'll cut the Smithsonian a little slack regarding its eagerness to sell panda gewgaws and gimcracks. But only so much slack. A panda shack near the entrance to the panda exhibit offered some panda merchandise, such as these panda umbrellas.

Stranger still, the shack also sells a t-shirt with the Hello Kitty character wearing a panda suit. For saccharinity, that's like putting honey on sugar cubes. But the shack was small potatoes compared to the indoor Panda Store across Panda Plaza. Pretty much all your panda needs can be met there.

In case shopping for panda merch makes you hungry, and willing to pay $10 for a hot dog with fries, there's always the Panda Plaza Grill.

Finally, the zoo is home to a couple of actual pandas, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian. Unlike the late Hsing-Hsing and Ling-Ling, which I believe played ping-pong (well, maybe not) and were given to the United States by the People's Republic of China in the early '70s, the current pandas are only borrowed from China under an agreement that runs until 2015, unless it's renewed.

As leisurely as a panda's life might seem, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian have to breed or risk being returned. "If... either panda is found unsuitable for breeding, the two institutions will discuss the possibility of exchanging them with breeding pandas from China," the zoo's web site says. So the bears need to get it on. Again. They had a cub about five years ago that was sent to China last year to do stud duty for the pandas there, in as much as that's possible,

The National Zoo pandas were visible during our visit in separate indoor spaces. They were doing what I understand pandas do most of the time, eating bamboo. None of our pics turned out even remotely well, so I'm not going publish them and pretend they're Hipstamatic. But the bears looked well. A lot better than the dirty, flea-bitten pandas we saw at the Beijing Zoo.

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