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Camping at the Zoo

Popular "snore and roar" sleepovers give visitors an up close nighttime adventure with animals

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"Got a great assignment for you," my editor said, "the Snore and Roar program. You spend the night in a tent at the Zoo."

So there I was on Lion Tiger Hill, setting up a tent under the sharp eye of security officer Vincent Parker, who would look after us and our belongings and check for inclement weather throughout the night. There were 26 of us, including eight children and two teenagers, participating in this sleepover at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo.

"You’ll have no trouble waking up," Debbie Brown, our host, told me. By day she’s a preschool teacher in nearby Annandale, Virginia, and in the summer she teaches safari classes to youngsters at the Zoo.

"You will be roused, all right," Brown said. "Sometimes the lions start roaring around 6 A.M., muted at first from inside and then louder when the keepers let them out. Lions reestablish their territory by roaring. It’s very guttural and sort of vibrates the ground. It carries very well."

After Brown gave us some tips for pitching our tents and everyone had them up, it was time for snacks: vegetables, dip, cheese and crackers, and animal cookies. The sun was down and a chill seeped down the hill as day visitors hurried to their cars.

Last year, from May through October, some 950 people took part in 45 Snore and Roars, and this year the program is being expanded. The cost is $40 a person. The campouts attract "mostly families," Brown told me, "though we have adults-only night too. We serve wine with the snacks."

Though the children are no problem, she assured me. They rarely experience any nighttime panic. "They’re too tired after the flashlight tour. It gets very quiet very fast here."

As the dusk deepened, I could see several small boys racing about doing what small boys do in tents, crawling in and out, flashing their flashlights, arranging their stuff.

One of my tent neighbors was Jim Eanes and his wife, Karen, and daughter Elizabeth, 12, from nearby Ellicott City, Maryland. Karen’s sister Linda Girdner was here also with husband Jan Hoff and son Devon Hoff, 13. It was Linda’s 50th birthday, and the campout was her present.

This was the night to tour the Great Ape House. Every Snore and Roar group gets an up close visit to one of the major Zoo houses with a keeper. We met keeper Nicole Meese, who made us promise not to shine flashlights in the animals’ faces. Then we met the gorillas.

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