Springtime innation’s capital | TahoeDailyTribune.com

Springtime innation’s capital

Susan Wood
Todd Allred/Provided to the Tribune One of the Smithsonian National Zoo's most popular residents - a giant panda - entertains passersby by negotiating a log in the playpen.

WASHINGTON – From cherry blossoms to animal attraction, a city known for its insiders comes with ample outside activities for springtime adventurers.

The adventure begins at the Smithsonian National Zoo – home of Tian Tian and Mei Xiang. The 7-year-old male and 6-year-old female giant pandas, respectively, came on the scene three years ago on a loan from the China Wildlife Conservation Association.

Today, the rarest animals in the world – only about 1,000 exist in the bamboo forests of central China – are the subject of an ambitious research, conservation and breeding program designed to maintain the endangered species.

The pandas haven’t disappointed the volunteers who watch their movement and interest in each other.

“We’ve got activity. We’ve got activity,” zoo volunteer Rand Rensvold said, pointing at one of the screens the retired Air Force pilot monitors with environmental consultant, Jim Tewksbury. “They usually do this long after their rest period.”

It was 1:10 p.m.

The pleasant surprise came two weeks early for the animals, one of 435 species at the zoo.

The earlier-than-usual foreplay represented either love in the air or excitement over a fresh batch of bamboo being delivered. A Maryland woman grows their bamboo on her farm.

Pandas eat 40 pounds a day – eight times the amount of food the average person consumes. Shortly before the truck pulled up to their pen, the pandas nipped and batted at each other.

“Right now, he’s taking a bite out of the female,” Rensvold said in his best scientific tone. “Hey, a somersault – look at that.”

With April deemed giant panda month, the animals provided a voyeuristic view for the crowd gathered outside to watch the historic event. They roared when the black-eyed animals curled up in a ball and rolled down the hill.

The playful mating behavior seemed to spread across the zoo.

The tail of an Indian peafowl, known as a peacock, had fully extended its 150 feathers to attract mates. Passersby cooed over its vibrant blue and green display.

Birds in the aviary joined in the springtime fun on one recent weekday in March. A green magpie primped up for his visitors, while the chimpanzees poked at each other.

Visitors see an assortment of animals and their behavior at one of the nation’s oldest zoos, which was created by Congress in 1889.

Signs marking the zoo path measures a cheetah’s speed at 23 feet in one second. Another set out in front of the Amazonian exhibit declares “animals roam free.”

To that, one parent with a small child asked in disbelief: “What?”

Children are a big part of the zoo. One wide-eyed, young boy looked up at his mother to tell her he wanted to touch the tiger.

“I know you do,” she replied.

Of course, one never knows what adults might say about the spectacles surrounding them.

A woman talking on a cell phone told a person on the other end: “We’re here at the zoo, visiting your relatives.”

There’s something for everyone at the zoo, bringing out the whimsical behavior in the visitors.

The National Zoo attracts 3 million visitors a year, many of whom come to see the giant pandas. For that, the zoo has come under the public eye.

It was granted a full five-year accreditation from the American Zoo and Aquarium Association three weeks ago. The recognition comes despite an announcement it’s losing its zoo director, Lucy Spelman.

The zoo had been operating under a provisional accreditation for the past year, following the deaths of two dozen animals in the last decade, The Associated Press reported.

– Susan Wood can be reached at (530) 542-8009 or via e-mail at swood@tahoedailytribune.com

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