Face to face with an emu

What happens at the zoo in the wintertime? The unexpected.

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    CUB: Tai Shan, a panda bear cub, plays in his pen at the National Zoo in Washington.
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A zoo in winter is an unlikely destination for a spontaneous outing. A place that is crowded for most of the year is now empty; the artificially constructed outdoor habitats for tropical animals are frozen. But when the T-shirted crowds have gone, what, if anything, is happening at the zoo?

The other day, on the coldest morning so far this winter, I decided to try to find out. I thought, rather self-righteously, that the animals might like some company.

As I crossed from the parking lot into my local zoo, it was, as I expected, eerily quiet. I did not see a single person as I made my way along a path and came to the first pen, that of an Australian bird, the emu – an interesting creature but hardly a star attraction. I stood by the fence and watched this large, hefty bird (a relation of the ostrich) who turned and began to make its way purposefully in my direction.

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Just as I thought: The bird was in need of some company. It walked straight toward me, its small, aristocratic, peacocklike head on a huge llamalike body with feathers. Perhaps this would be a Dr. Doolittle moment and I would talk with the animals, so to speak. As he approached the fence and looked me straight in the eye, I was impressed with his self-sufficiency and his quirkiness. But then he simply walked by.

Still, this was only the start of my visit, I thought, continuing down the hill to try to see the pandas, the zoo's superstars. The path was deserted, and all the panda pandemonium of summer days was gone. Because no pandas were outside, I had to go into their building to catch a glimpse of one walking in a businesslike fashion toward his own private quarters. Frankly, he couldn't have cared less that I was there.

So on down the hill I went, realizing I should have formulated a firm goal for my quest. It dawned on me that I should seek – what else? – the lion in winter (an expression that became popular following a 1960s movie with that title). Surely to view a real lion in winter would be a lofty goal.

So, toward the lions I journeyed. When I reached the great apes house, I knew I had to peek in because a baby gorilla had been born just six days before. True enough, the mother and baby were in a hammock, but the mother had turned her back firmly to the window, shielding her baby from view. Clearly, they weren't enthused about visitors in general and me in particular.

Persevering, though, I still anticipated seeing a lion in winter. At last, I reached the great cats exhibit. As I made a solitary trek around the enclosure, I realized that there were no lions to be seen. Apparently, lions in winter are a contradiction in terms. In this zoo, at least, they aren't actually allowed to brave the cold. And the public can't see the lions when they're inside.

Then I faced a fairly long uphill trek to my car. There had been no lions in winter, no glimpse of the baby gorilla, and only a fleeting peek at a panda. Perhaps the absent crowd knows best: The zoo is not worth a visit in winter.

I trudged up the hill, passing forlorn, frost-covered vending machines, zoo shops closed for the season, and deserted lemonade stands. I found my way back to the path leading to my parking spot. I had come hoping to be good company to the animals and left feeling they had not needed me.

But then I found myself face to face with the emu again. At the start of the visit, I'd had that brief moment of silent communication with this quixotic creature. Now, a parting exchange with this primeval creature made me realize that seeing and appreciating an emu for the first time had turned out to be the purpose of the visit, rather than the more grandiose experience I tried to plan or hope for.

As I reached my car, I felt I'd learned a little of what happens at the zoo in winter. It imparts its own quiet message – not perhaps what we think we want to hear, but what it wants to tell us. Most of the animals hadn't needed my company after all. Maybe, I realized, it was more that I had needed theirs.

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