Camping at the Zoo

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

Smithsonian Zoo front entrance
Smithsonian's National Zoo

"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.

Their life is a soap opera, it seems. Who is mating with whom, how the teenagers are behaving, what the babies get for breakfast: it’s a saga.

"Now there’s Baraka making his nest for the night," Meese announced to campers. "Baraka is 9, and he’s a subadult male, sort of a teenager. Kuja, the leader of the family group and a silverback, is about 18. And Mandara is 19; she’s the only female in the group. Their son is Kwame, who is about 16 months old."

Baraka sat at the back of the habitat strewing hay all over himself with grave deliberation. Pretty soon Mandara flipped the baby onto her back and loped over to the window, where she sat staring at us. When some of the boys drifted off, she pounded on the glass to get our attention again. But she wasn’t the star of the show. It was the baby.

Kwame peered at us for a while, looking like a wizened little farmer, with a straw sticking jauntily from his mouth. Then he lay flat on his back. Then he did a somersault. Then he clambered up a tree and fell off. Then he climbed on a rope and fell off. Then he scratched his small round head, looking now like a little farmer wondering if it was going to rain. Everyone cracked up.

He has a white spot on his rear end, which he showed us several times. The spot tells the other gorillas that this is a baby and should be indulged, Meese said. Human babies could use something like that.

"They eat carrots, green beans, sweet potatoes, celery, fruit—and some meat once a week. They also get special zoo chow," Meese said, offering us the hard, dry biscuits. They weren’t bad. Dipped in sherry, with a bit of butter, they might go down quite nicely.

"In this next enclosure we have Mopie, who is 29, and Kigali, the half sister of Baraka," Meese continued. Gorilla family dynamics are complex. And since they are very social, they are never housed singly.

Mopie loves children, we were informed. Adults are asked to sidle up to gorillas and not face them directly right away. But it’s OK for children. Last year at Halloween, Meese said Mopie was so fascinated by the visiting children in their costumes—who are these bizarre creatures?—that he stayed up long after his regular bedtime. He weighs about 450 pounds. When Mopie is tranquilized and moved out of his cage, it takes ten keepers to squeeze him through the door.

On to the orangutans.

"Now Bonnie here is very intelligent," Meese said. "These animals are smarter than people think. Bonnie walks on two feet most of the time. She’s 25, and she’s living with Junior. They have a son, Kiko."

Bonnie came straight up to the window to study us. Junior was just a pile of stringy orange hair in the corner, wrapped in a burlap blanket.

"Sometimes Bonnie makes herself a waterfall. She jams a straw into the waterspout to turn it on and get it to flow continuously. One morning we found her sitting under the waterspout with a piece of cardboard over her head like an awning."

Suddenly Junior decided to check us out. He got up and ambled over. He was enormous. His hair looked to be a yard long. A minute later he went back to curl up on his tarp and go to sleep. Junior is the one who famously ventured onto the O Line, the elevated wirewalk between ape houses, then, apparently undaunted, climbed down an electrified tower right onto the ground, much to the astonishment of Zoo staff and visitors. He was quickly darted by the vet.

Meese showed us a plastic gorilla skull with its inch-high ridges along the top. These hold in place the prodigious jaw muscles they need for chewing greens all day. They have canine teeth, too, for fighting.

After leaving the ape house, Debbie Brown led us out into the night to visit some of the outdoor nocturnals. We saw maras, huge rodents that appear to have been designed by committee: deer legs and cavy heads. There were macaques, a coati and a sleepy caracal with gleaming eyes named Martina, whose tall ears have tufts that help her slink unnoticed through the tall grasses.

People were beginning to peel off for the night as we headed on to see Gunnar and Selkie, the seals, and the sloth bears and the brown bear named Kiska, whom we awoke from a sound sleep. Kiska likes to show off her soccer skills with a large ball that she boots up a ramp, but not at night.

It was nearly 11. A hardy band headed for the elephants and the camels, but I headed for my tent. I could see the stars through the mesh, and as I lay in my sleeping bag the smell of the ground cloth brought back scenes of camping years ago with the children in places like Yosemite and Big Basin State Park.

Years ago, indeed. I had forgotten how hard the ground was. It kept me tossing until about 1 A.M.

It was not the lions that woke us all. It was the gibbons. They give long clarinetish hoots to tell the world "I am here and what you gonna do about it?" We crawled from the tents and ran for the coffee table.

Debbie Brown joined us at the breakfast buffet and shared this eye-opening story: some years ago an orangutan got loose. The keepers were running everywhere searching for her, and an alarm went out: Everyone go back to your cars! Well, a German couple visiting Washington were having a picnic on the grass. They heard the alarm but apparently did not understand English and did not heed the warning.

Pretty soon this orangutan comes shuffling down the path and stares at them. They figure this is one of those hands-on modern zoos and think nothing of it. Then the orangutan sits down on the blanket with them. They give her a sandwich. She takes them all. Well, OK.

Then a keeper rushes up. He does not panic. He offers the orang her favorite food, sugarless bubble gum. She takes it and goes off with the keeper, hand in hand, to her cage.

Hand in hand. That’s what I heard.

While Brown organized the younger campers for a scavenger hunt, I joined Linda and Jan for a walk. Linda slept the whole night, she said, thanks to an egg-crate sponge mattress. In the early quiet, before the crowds arrived, the animals seemed playful and alert. Two elephants gently butted head-to-head on a ramp: Was it a power thing or just a game? Walkers and joggers streamed through the Zoo in the dawn. We folded our tents and started for the parking lot.

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