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Posted at 12:40 PM ET, 10/11/2006

The Zoo's New Digs

By Julia Beizer

To me, the National Zoo has always had a funky '70s vibe. For as long as I can remember, the pathways have been dotted by the same brown, rain-splattered signs with chunky lettering and the groovy Smithsonian sun logo. With the possible exception of everyone's favorite panda, not much seems to change around there.

But next Tuesday, the zoo unveils its biggest change in nearly 40 years: a new and improved series of exhibits collectively called Asia Trail. I had the chance to check out the new space this morning. The '70s signposts around the park may not have blasted into the future, but the part of the zoo that has been revamped is certainly a great leap forward in zoo design and it allows up-close face time with the animals.

The Basics: Six acres of the zoo have been reworked for these exhibits, which make up 12 percent of the zoo's entire space. The $53 million project takes on the challenges of environmentally sound architecture: wooden bridges are made of sustainably harvested ipe wood, solar power heats some of the water systems and recycled materials make up some roofs.

The Animals: Seven animal species are featured along the trail: a Japanese giant salamander, clouded leopards, fishing cats, small-clawed otters, sloth bears, red pandas and, of course, the black-and-white variety we've all come to know.

In the new enclosures, the zoo has tried to mimic the animals' natural habitats and that is this project's greatest success. Take Tai Shan: his new home features rocky terrain and bubbling creeks like the ones he might find in central China. To keep him comfortable in the hot summer months, the zoo has created a fog-generating grotto where he can relax.

Tai Shan isn't the only one receiving special treatment. The sloth bears, including Balawat (Fritz's favorite cub), have plenty of spaces to dig in their new enclosure -- something they apparently love, as evidenced by the claw marks that already dent their new home.

The View: What makes this cool for us, though, is that visitors can get very close to the animals on display. I stood about a foot away from a fishing cat (a species that looks like a regular house cat, except it dives underwater for -- you guessed it! -- fish) as she stalked her prey from a branch that spread across the water toward the glass that separated us. Just by kneeling in front of the otter tank, I was able to see the little critters twirling around underwater. Since much of the action happens below the water surface, kids will get a kick out of being so close.

Interactives: Like many new educational spaces, the zoo has embraced interactive technology throughout the trail. Touch screens teach about the animals on view and the challenges of conserving natural habitats. Your face could end up on a television screen if you step over the camera sensor in one section of the exhibit that teaches kids about how scientists track animals in the wild.

Could We Have More?: Walking around the exhibit was great, but I also learned some news that will have the pandaphiles buzzing: Lisa Stevens, the panda curator, told us today that the zoo will try to breed the pandas again next spring. The new space can be divided into four enclosures if another little one is on the way.

The zoo is hosting two opening celebrations next week, one on Tuesday and the other on Saturday. Will it be crowded? Probably, but the new zoo is definitely worth checking out.


By Julia Beizer  | October 11, 2006; 12:40 PM ET
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