We all know that baby elephants walk…but did you know that when the mood strikes, baby elephants love to swim?

Although the buildings at the National Zoo don’t open until 10 am, the grounds (designed in part by my hero, Frederick Law Olmsted) are open to walkers at 7 am. Wanting to avoid both crowds and heat, on Monday I arrived at the zoo soon after its gates opened, knowing that many animals are housed outside and all are typically more active in the morning than at other times of day.

If you’ve been to zoos only to watch elephants stand stone-like as they swat flies with their tails, you need to go to a zoo in the morning, when the babies and even adults are active. Although Mama Elephant wanted no part of Junior’s antics, he was entertainment enough, swimming in his pool to retrieve two rugged floating balls which he then kicked around soccer-like and ultimately tried (unsuccessfully) to stand upon.

In high school, I was a volunteer intern at my local zoo, where I did an assortment of dirty jobs (and earned extra credit) one afternoon a week. After my shift was done in the late afternoon, I’d walk around the zoo grounds, which at that time of day were rapidly emptying of visitors as parents whisked their kids home to dinner and bedtime. The animals were always more active as evening approached and the crowds went home. Being ogled by screaming kids and tired parents gets understandably old, and I found that normally elusive creatures would venture out of hiding to watch me if I approached their enclosures quietly and alone.

Although I have the usual moral qualms about keeping wild animals in captivity, I’ve always had a child-like fascination with zoos. No number of illustrated books and educational videos can capture the imagination as can watching a living creature in the flesh: there’s no way of counting the number of conservationists who (like me) had their interest for wildlife fueled by frequent trips to the zoo. Obviously I’d rather see a giraffe walking wild on an African savanna than strolling a largish enclosure at a zoo…but since habitat loss is one of the biggest threats facing giraffes and other wild creatures, zoos are one way of educating the public–particularly children–about the importance of habitat preservation.

The problem with zoos, in my opinion, isn’t in their aims to educate and inform through the display of captive creatures. The problem with zoos, in my opinion, is the fact that the throngs of people who visit them frighten off the very animals they’ve come to see. Just as popular National Parks can be “loved to death” by bloated crowds of visitors who leave a detrimental mark by littering, feeding animals, and eroding trails, zoo animals typically flee from the noise and over-stimulation of the teeming masses who have come to see them. Instead of seeing creatures that are playful, inquisitive, and alert, most zoo visitors see glimpses of animals that are hiding, resting, and otherwise avoiding human contact.

In the early morning hours before zoos are choked with visitors, though, you can see the Usual Suspects out and about, playing and exploring their enclosures and interacting with keepers before the crowds descend. Just like Dorothy in Oz, you can see lions…

and tigers…

and bears: oh my!

Yes, if you go to the National Zoo before the buildings open, you might have the same luck as I did, being able to walk right up to the giant panda exhibit without any lines in time to see the star attraction taking a stroll before settling in for a snooze. Apparently, it’s exhausting work to be a much-loved animal celebrity, what with the fans and the paparazzi and such.

And if giant pandas are the perpetual favorite at the National Zoo, let’s not forget the newest attraction: yes, I saw the cheetah cubs that were born at the zoo in April. Although my photos are blurry–these little guys are fuzzy, and I don’t have a foot-long telephoto lens like several other zoo visitors did–here’s photographic proof that the cheetah cubs do indeed spend their days nursing…

resting…

and playing.

When it comes to attracting (and entertaining) visitors, it seems these cheetah cubs took a page from the giant pandas’ play book. When you’re cute and fuzzy, nearly anything you do is guaranteed to draw a crowd.