By Deborah Wood, Ph.D.
Every child should have nice memories of going to the zoo. Fortunately, the zoo of my childhood, the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute in Washington, D.C., is close enough to Annapolis to warrant a mid-week, early December, mid-pandemic excursion with my homeschooling 2nd and 5th grade grandchildren. The name is much longer than it was when I was a child when the zoo’s mission seemed to be more about putting animals on display. Now there is an obvious emphasis on the well-being of the resident animals and for all animals in the wild.
Pleasantly, this was the least crowded experience I’ve had in all the decades I’ve been visiting.
There are pandemic protocols currently in place to protect guests and staff from Covid-19. A limited number of entry passes are available no more than 30 days in advance. It was easy enough to get the passes online – a day in advance – but who does that much advance planning nowadays anyway? The weather report was looking comfortable enough for the following day and we were having a particularly cold day with no outdoor activity at all other than getting in and out of the car. Besides, the students have been steadily adding papers to their portfolios so we deserved a nice outing.
I later reflected that the reservation system allows for contact tracing should there be a need to notify guests of the possibility of contagion. I don’t know if this has happened since the zoo re-opened this past May, but it is reassuring to know they are ready for it.
Masks Required Indoors
We were ready with masks – required of all visitors ages 2 and older – and saw them on everyone in the indoor exhibits and on most people who were outside as well. This safety measure was added to the list of rules for visitors at the end of July with the arrival of the delta variant.
Not all exhibit areas were open, including the Bird House, which is okay considering what a large acreage the whole park has. There was plenty to see, indoors and out, during our two-hour venture. And plenty of room to stay more than six feet apart from other visitors.
No, they’re not asking for vaccine cards upon entry, although I’ve been boostered and the children are nearing two weeks since their second shot. I had forgotten the news story about lions and tigers at the zoo coming down with Covid-19 in September. The protocols for visitors not only protect zoo staff but the animals as well. Fortunately this zoo takes their commitment to using cutting-edge science seriously and they have followed up with treatment for the affected great cats and with updates to the concerned public. It’s considered rare, but a small number of animals worldwide have come down with the virus according to the US Department of Agriculture, apparently catching it from infected humans.
Our last stop was the Great Apes House. Here it’s easy to forget who is the visitor and who is the exhibit since the animals take so much interest in the people on the other side of the glass. As humans, we can easily see a close connection between the appearance and behavior of gorillas, orangutans, chimps, and ourselves. In fact, according to the National Institutes of Health, we share 97% of the DNA of orangutans and 99% of chimpanzees. In the picture above you can see that the children enjoyed a game of “Monkey See Monkey Do” led by a monkey much larger than they are.
But back to the reality of the ongoing pandemic. Here’s a video I found after our trip showing how well the orangutans did with getting Covid-19 vaccines .
A trip to the zoo deepens one’s appreciation for our connection with and our responsibility toward animals.
Register in advance for the free Homeschoolers’ Get Together at Chesapeake Children’s Museum, Thursday, December 16, 10:30 am to 2:30 pm.
Read more of Dr. Wood’s Good Parenting columns by clicking here.