The Hollywood mother was in high demand in Washington on Friday morning as parents foisted their children before the shoulder-cams and radio mics of various reporters at the entrance of the National Zoo.
It was a crisp, sunny day on Connecticut Avenue. The entrance was clogged with tripod stands, forcing young mothers and nannies with strollers to stand outside of a Starbucks as they waited for the zoo to open at 10 a.m. Street parking was bumper to bumper with news trucks.
The most publicity hungry parents embedded themselves among the throng of reporters, who jammed microphones into the faces of unsuspecting, confused children.
“Wassup baby, I’m from WTOP,” a reporter shouted at a second grader as she pointed to the letters on her company polo.
“Are you really excited or kinda excited?” a television reporter asked two elementary school children outside the gates.
After he finished asking the kids which animals they wanted to see, he turned to the camera and spoke ominously about the toll the government shutdown had had on the zoo.
The zoo had lost more than $600,000 over the course of the shutdown, according to official estimates. Only veterinarians, animal keepers, the plumbers supporting the animals’ hydration system, and a few other support positions essential to keep the animals alive were allowed to report to work during the shutdown.
And police. The federal government needed them to keep people out.
Lana Golden was surprised to discover that the zoo was closed when she flew in from Omaha with her 11-year-old daughter Goldie Kelly, 11, and her friend Sophia Gillespie, 10.
“We came to D.C. six years ago and walked the entire city, looking at monuments. When we got here this time there were barricades everywhere. I was like, ‘Are you kidding me?’” Golden said. “Now we’re trying to squeeze in all of D.C. in a day, the zoo, memorials, everything.”
The zoo entered the national conversation about the shutdown almost immediately, as people took to Twitter swearing they were stalwart viewers of the “Panda Cam,” which grants viewers 24/7 access to watch a panda eat bamboo. Things only got worse earlier this week when a photo went viral showing a child in an animal costume standing on the zoo’s chained gates.
Beltway experts pronounced him collateral damage in a gross partisan battle over Obamacare. Some had a different take.
“If you take your kid to a zoo that you know is closed just to prove a political point, you are a bad parent,” House GOP spokesman Tim Cameron tweeted.
Some mothers agreed that the photo was staged.
“That kid didn’t know what he was doing there. The mom probably just told him to go stand there,” one mother said.
Zoo officials announced its grand re-opening ceremony on Thursday. By 9:30 a.m. on Friday, the entrance was littered with cameras and parents eager to get their kids in front of them. A man in a panda costume soon arrived led by a woman in a yellow shirt, a pied piper for eager children and TV cameramen.
A Smithsonian official soon guided two young boys in baseball caps to the front gate. They were tasked with opening the gate once a park policemen unlocked the brass padlock that had denied people access to the zoo since Oct. 1.
I asked Ian and Zach Wirta, 11-year-old fraternal twins, how they attained the privilege of opening the gate.
“She [a Smithsonian official] just asked us to,” Ian shrugged.
Two TV cameramen trained their cameras on the boys’ faces as 10 a.m. neared. That is until National Zoo director Dennis Kelly lifted a red megaphone outside the zoo entrance to deliver his reopening benediction.
“We’re back in business,” he said, earning confused looks from the gathered children.
“The kids must think we’re an angry mob storming a castle,” 23-year-old medical assistant Ksenia Zherdva told her mother as Kelly spoke.
He finished the speech and zoo employees formed a gauntlet around the zoo entrance, holding “We Miss You” signs and beckoning children to their exhibits.
Parents and children flocked into the zoo, off to visit the cheetahs, birds, and, of course, pandas, while Kelly held court before some reporters. He outlined the merits of the national zoo, emphasizing that it was more than just spectacle.
“The money is invested back into our mission of conservation,” he said.
That message was on hand almost immediately after families entered zoo grounds. A graveyard surrounded a Norway Spruce outside the Cheetah Conservation Center to commemorate Halloween. Faux spider webs with glitter-soaked spiders surrounded the area. White lilies were planted before cardboard tombstones of extinct species, the Lesser Stick-nest Rat (1933), Jamaican Long-tongued Bat (1900) and Darwin’s Rice Rat (1945).
“These are all extinct species,” a grandfather instructed a little blonde girl.
“Oooo spiders,” she replied.