City Desk

The National Zoo Reopens (but the Lions Still Think They’re Furloughed)

The only female panda on display.

On their first day back on the job since the end of the government shutdown, the National Zoo's lions were getting about as much respect as other members of the often-maligned federal workforce.

"RAWR," growled a small girl, hoping to inspire a reaction from the residents of the Great Cats habitat. They continued to lounge in the shade, so the girl stuck her tongue out.

"He's lazy," said a small boy, pointing to the male lion, whose back was turned to visitors.

Elsewhere, animals were getting back into the habit of showing off—the high-wire orangutans were out for a swing—and the late-morning crowd of school groups and young families appeared to be thickening.

All over, broadcast reporters were capturing B-roll and conducting kid-on-the-street interviews. The crowd was heaviest by the giant panda habitat, where a reporter identifying himself as working for Japanese public television asked a small boy, "How do you like seeing the panda today?" Only Tian Tian, the zoo's male panda, was out, but the boy was pleased to see him: He'd tried to log on to the Panda Cam yesterday, which had just gone back online, and was locked out. While his mate, Mei Xiang, and their new cub were still being cared for away from the panda-crazed public, Tian Tian did his duty, walking toward the crowd and biting into something that had the look—though presumably not the taste—of a particularly kitschy aromatic candle.

Along the Olmstead Walk, two subcontractors of the company Events by Q & A were installing black cats and cob webs. "We had already been paid," said Josh Allwine, who'd been working on the zoo's annual Halloween display since Tuesday, when the government was still shut down. "It's really cool. Quiet. Peaceful," he said of the visitor-less zoo. "The zebras were out doing crazy things." Allwine and his co-worker Bryan Zinc had just rehung a ghost that had fallen down, and next planned to arrange an all-skeleton dinner party. "Skeletons are included in everything, more or less," Allwine said.

Bats, too. "It's bat country," Zinc said of the display. "Hunter S. Thompson would be proud."

While much of the federal government reopened on Thursday, the zoo waited until 10 a.m. this morning. "We are in the process of making sure that our guest services—including food, merchandise, and the Speedwell Foundation Conservation Carousel—are up and running for the return of our visitors," spokeswoman Jennifer Zoon wrote yesterday.

Back at the eastern end of the zoo, operations engineer Tim Thomas was standing by the carousel, taking in the crowd. He worked through the shutdown, and said he has not been paid for that time yet. While it was closed to the public, the zoo was "desolate. It was just dead," he said. "Even the animals noticed." Asked to elaborate, he singled out the flamingos, who "take on a whole different demeanor."

He suggested I take a ride on the carousel, which was free to visitors 18 and younger. I expressed reluctance to pay the adult price. "Have a ride on me," Thomas said. "Tell 'em it's on Tim."

Photo by Jonathan L. Fischer

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