By Jonny Grave
I had to hold my mother’s hand as we walked through the parking lot, passing the parked cars, and waving “hello” to the guards at the gate. I was free from mom’s grasp once we were on the hexagonal tiles of a familiar winding pathway down a hill. It was a Saturday, and we were going to the Zoo.
I’m positive this wasn’t the first time I had been to the National Zoo, but it is the first visit I can remember with any clarity. My older sister and I spent a bright summer day outside with our mom and dad, running from exhibit to exhibit. Dad worked for National Geographic back then, and would bring home VHS tapes of the not-yet-released NatGeo TV specials. Even at age five, I thought it was pretty spiffy to go visit animals I saw in the videos.
My mother would occasionally tell us to not run out of eyesight or earshot, or tell us to sit still so she could take a photo of us on the granite bear, or on the brass frog. My father whooped at the gibbons, trying to get them to talk back. I remember a lot of sun, a lot of walking, and being amazed by something at every turn. There were real lions and tigers walking around. There was an elephant taking a bath outside.
I also recall being a little disappointed at the Komodo dragons. I thought I was going to see a giant, fire-breathing reptile. I had no such luck. But down the path from the “dragons,” there was a red brick building with a big archway, and a word I had difficulty pronouncing. My sister had no trouble correcting me, of course: “No, no… inverTUHbrates. Not inverTERbrates. Jeez.”
Then, I just remember darkness. A lot of darkness, in fact. We went from what must have been a cloudless day in the brilliant sun to a dark corridor. Everything went black for a moment. My eyes had barely readjusted before we saw the anemone tanks. I ran up to the glass to watch the iridescent tentacles sway in the current of the tank. In the dark, these little underwater creatures seemed like something out of a dream. I asked my father what kind of plants they were, and he explained that they weren’t plants at all. They were animals that eat food, and can even move around a bit.
I was mesmerized. The Invertebrate House offered something different from the rest of the Zoo. The Bird House, the Reptile House, Small Mammals, and even the Think Tank all seemed to be part of the same place. They all had the same thing: An animal behind the glass or grate, in an enclosure made to simulate their natural habitat, looking somewhat dejected, confused, or just bored.
The Invertebrate House was like stepping into another world. It was dark and secret, holding animals that were almost unreal. They weren’t static or still– they moved around their tanks with a grace that only those without spines possess. The cuttlefish really threw me for a loop. I watched enough Saturday morning cartoons to know that a chameleon can change its skin color, but I never could have imagined what a cuttlefish can do.
The exhibit was a lot to take in. I remember being almost too scared to walk up to the glass wall of the octopus tank. It was one thing to see ferocious predators like lions, prowling around their respective enclosures, a very safe distance from the humans looking in. It was something entirely different to see a real, live sea monster on the other side of the glass, looking right back at you.
The last two portions of the Invertebrate House were the most unbelievable scenes of all. In the corner of the last room, just to the left of the exit, in plain view and open air, was the orb-weaver spider exhibit: several spiders, suspended in mid-air, with no net, cage or glass. There was nothing between me and what I could only assume were terribly venomous spiders that would kill me if I so much as looked at them wrong. There was a young lady in a brown khaki uniform, answering questions. She told me that the spiders will almost definitely not jump off their webs and bite me. They were actually eating their lunch, and I could take a look if I wanted to. She seemed like she knew what she was talking about, so I obliged.
And the butterflies. We came out of the cool darkness, into a hot and muggy greenhouse, with condensation beading up on the glass roof. The air was sweet with flowers, and the leaves were dotted with brilliant colors. What seemed like dozens of butterflies flew all around the room, darting from one plant to the next. My mother moved in with her camera, asking me very nicely to please sit still and not try to catch them. When her photos were developed a week later, I couldn’t believe she could get so close.
Almost every other exhibit in the Zoo had signs everywhere, reading “DO NOT TOUCH,” or “PLEASE, DO NOT TAP ON THE GLASS.” The Invertebrate House was the first place in the Zoo I could remember that invited visitors to get up close and personal with the animals, even if they were a little terrifying. When you get close enough, you can see the intricate beauty of how these creatures work. It’s a lesson I carry with me to this day.
Years later, the Invertebrate House remains my favorite destination in the Zoo. While I personally support most improvements and necessary changes to the Zoo, there is a large part of me that is crushed to know that the highlight of the first visit I can recall, and almost every visit since, will be gone forever. I will miss my sea monsters.
Photos of the Invertebrate Exhibit at the National Zoo courtesy of the Smithsonian’s National Zoo, feature photo by Brandon Wetherbee