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The National Zoo’s three Asian elephants moved into the pachyderm equivalent of the Ritz-Carlton earlier this year, with heated floors; giant, nearly silent motorized doors; and a lengthy walking trail for “cardio.” The only thing that appears to be missing from the $56 million Elephant Community Center is an infinity pool.
With the completion of the new building, which is part of the larger Elephant Trails project, elephants have joined pandas and orangutans in the National Zoo’s aristocracy. It’s hard to escape them these days: In the bird exhibit, a 10-minute walk from the elephant house, visitors come to the start of the elephant trail where a sign proclaims the elephant “a very big bird.” Even the Elephant Community Center’s most serious downside—-the smell that comes from having three elephants in one building—-has been transformed into a cutesy novelty, with a tube of faux dung balls displaying how much the elephants defecate in a day.
Yet for all of the elephants’ shiny new accoutrements, one plot abutting the complex remains neglected. Its grass is unshorn, its graduated pool empty except for some mud. The enclosure, which once housed the zoo’s last hippopotamus, is a reminder that the elephants’ new playground didn’t come entirely free of opportunity costs.
Under the cover of darkness, Washington’s last hippo, Happy, left for the Milwaukee County Zoo in 2009. (The zoo blamed the nighttime departure on safety concerns.) The deportation, zoo officials said at the time, came down to space needs: Happy was in the way of the construction. This September will mark the zoo’s fourth year without hippos. All that remains of Hippopotamus amphibius is the image of one on a floor tile in the elephant house.
Which is a tragedy. Humans have had elephants pretty much figured out for centuries: the sad eyes, the big ears, the dangling trunks. They like to play with balls and sometimes tires. Little ones run after the big ones.
Hippos, on the other hand, are more complicated creatures, and deserve a place in the National Zoo’s educational mission. Their shambling locomotion and tiny ears are cute, sure, but they’re also inexplicably vicious. A recent article in The Guardian described one man’s experience trapped in an angry hippo’s belly before being coughed up. The elephant—-nature’s most boring large mammal—-would never swallow someone whole.
Having a hippo is certainly a hassle for a zoo. They require elaborate water filtration systems for their pools, and they eat about 80 pounds of food a day.
But hippos can have star wattage—-if they’re given the chance.
The National Zoo didn’t respond to requests for comment about the community center and the future of hippos at the zoo. But whatever the zoo’s plans are, now is the time for it to realize what other zoos are catching on to: People actually like hippos. Compare the hippoless National Zoo to Egypt’s Giza Zoo, which for my money—-literally, because I had to bribe people to see some of the animals—-may be the only zoo that truly understands hippos’ appeal. In a line a dozen children deep, visitors wait for a chance to hand-feed lettuce to the hippos, who are in turn granted an enormous amount of real estate. While I wouldn’t expect the National Zoo to adopt so hands-on an approach, the big crowds prove that people will be interested in hippos in the proper context.
Other zoos are also making strides to better accommodate—-and therefore, better show off—-their hippos. At the National Zoo, hippos were limited to a pool, some ground, and an indoor enclosure, meaning that often the most visitors would see were pairs of eyes, ears, and nostrils. More and more American zoos are fixing the water problem, according to Tim Wilde, curator of large mammals at D.C.’s expat hippo Happy’s new home in Milwaukee.
More common now are hippo habitats that include glass viewing areas that show the underwater portions of the pool. (The Toledo Zoo pioneered this approach in the 1980s.) The more hippos can be seen, Wilde argues, the more they pull in crowds. “I think hippos can actually be pretty popular,” Wilde says.
None of this is to suggest elephants don’t deserve their newly luxe digs; the elephant house needed renovations. In 2006, the zoo had to put down one arthritic elephant, Toni, and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals blamed the elephant house for its death. “I have never seen an elephant as crippled as Toni,” one elephant expert told the Washington Post.
Instead of taking room away from the elephants, a new hippo exhibit could give the boot to another one of the zoo’s animals. And there are many candidates to choose from.
The zoo’s Small Mammal House is already skippable, thanks to its cavelike darkness and the general blahness of its animals. Why not remove it from the map officially? Better yet, ship off the farm animals. Why have cows and goats when you can have a hippo?
If Washington does get a new hippo, though, don’t expect it to be Happy. After some initial shyness, he’s getting along well with Milwaukee’s two female hippos. “He seems to just be kind of hanging out,” says Wilde. “You know…he’s a hippo.”