Don't stand under the orangutans

June 03, 1999|By Kevin Cowherd

RECENTLY, MY wife and I and our 8-year-old visited the world-famous National Zoo in Washington, where we saw firsthand why it has earned the singular distinction: "More Ice Cream Stands Per Acre Than Any Other Zoo on Earth."

Actually, this is a wonderful zoo and we arrived just in time (9: 30 in the morning) to see the cheetahs being exercised.

The way this works is that the cheetahs begin with some light calisthenics -- jumping jacks, push-ups, that sort of thing -- and then play a little two-on-two basketball.

OK, fine, what really happens is that the cheetahs run around a large, grassy enclosure chasing these bright red lures that are activated electronically.

But cheetahs, one of their handlers explained, are sprinters, not long-distance runners. So after running 60 yards or so, a cheetah will collapse in the tall grass, chest heaving as if he has a three-pack-a-day Marlboro habit.

Seeing a cheetah wheeze like Don Rickles was disturbing enough, of course. But so was the fact that while the cheetahs exercise, their handlers are right there in the enclosure with them.

You would think, career-wise, this would be a bad move, due to the fact that the cheetah could attack and tear the handler to shreds at any moment.

But one of the handlers explained that cheetahs generally don't attack anything taller than themselves.

The word "generally" troubled me in this context, as did his next statement: "Besides, if the cheetahs get too close, we can maintain our personal space with this stick that each of us carries."

A stick?!

You're going to maintain your personal space from a charging, enraged cheetah with a stick?!

Me, I wouldn't get in there with anything less than full body armor and a 30mm machine gun, which of course probably disqualifies me as zoo-handler material.

From the cheetah enclosure, we drifted over to see the feeding of the giant panda, Hsing-Hsing.

Hsing-Hsing is one of the zoo's top attractions, along with the world-famous Popsicles, ice cream sandwiches and lemon ices that can be purchased every 10 feet or so.

So we were bummed out big-time when we arrived at the panda yard and were greeted with this sign: "Hsing-Hsing is not feeling well today."

The sign went on to say that, due to illness, Hsing-Hsing would have to remain inside and that his normal feeding had been canceled.

As the crowd at the panda yard absorbed this bulletin, each of us was, of course, consumed by one thought: What kind of a slacker is this Hsing-Hsing, anyway?

OK, fine, he's a little sick. But couldn't they put a little robe around him and wheel him outside on a cot to say hello?

Look, we weren't asking him to juggle swords or ride a unicycle, for God's sake.

We just wanted to see him.

"Tell him I drove all the way from Baltimore to see him," I said to a zoo volunteer. "On second thought, tell him I drove from Maine."

Actually, we found out Hsing-Hsing, who at 28 is fairly old by panda standards, is suffering from kidney problems. Which made us all feel terrible about bad-mouthing him as slacker.

We moved on to visit the elephants and giraffes, and then the small mammal house, the great ape house and the reptile center.

By now, though, it was clear that the sun was starting to get to me. Because at one point I looked up and saw -- you talk about bad hallucinations -- an orangutan walking 30 feet above my head.

Luckily, just as I was about to wig out, my wife tugged my arm and said: "Don't look now, but there's an orangutan walking directly above our heads."

Well. It turned out the orangutan was getting his exercise, too, by walking on some kind of little rope bridge that encircled Monkey Island.

A helpful zoo volunteer explained that the first thing you should do if you happen to see an orangutan walking directly above your head is: Get the hell out of the way.

Because the orangutan, she said, might have an "accident." And by "accident," she did not mean that the orangutan might back his Honda Prelude into your mini-van.

No, this would be a different type of accident, if you catch my drift.

The type of accident you would regret for quite a while, at least until you could get home and take a shower and soak your clothes in gasoline and burn them.

Anyway, when the orangutans start acting up, it's generally a good idea to leave the zoo.

So we did, although not before purchasing three cookie ice cream sandwiches at a stand conveniently located near the exit.

There was probably another ice cream stand out in the parking lot.

But why take a chance?

Pub Date: 6/03/99

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