WTOP takes you behind the scenes at ZooLights

Planning the annual ZooLights holiday show is a coordinated effort designed to thrill visitors while also catering to the special needs of each animal species. Find out which creatures are intentionally kept in the dark and what the five must-see stops along the tour are.

Megan Cloherty, wtop.com

WASHINGTON – Planning the annual ZooLights holiday show, which thousands make a part of their season, is a coordinated effort designed to thrill visitors and cater to the special needs of each animal species at the same time.

Visitors to the National Zoo’s holiday spectacle may have enjoyed the past five years of lights, Panda Claus, dancing trees and special access to exhibits, but they may not have noticed how certain animals are kept out of the limelight.

Some favorite stops along the winding trails of the zoo, such as the elephants and pandas, are intentionally kept dark during ZooLights, says Brandie Smith, the National Zoo’s senior curator of mammals.

“There are lights around the panda house, but there are no white lights. Reds, blues and purples are the only lights that are allowed around the panda house, so that they don’t disturb the natural light cycle of the pandas and potentially impact their breeding season,” Smith says.

While the bright lights could impact the pandas’ breeding season, Smith says they can keep the residents of the ape house from getting some shut-eye.

“It’s like how they tell people not to watch television, and not to use computer screens before they go to bed because it changes their natural light cycle,” she says.

While thousands of nighttime visitors to ZooLights may be disappointed by the inactivity at their favorite animal enclosure, Smith says it’s a chance to visit species normally found sleeping during the day.

“If you ever see the sloth during the day, it’s always sleeping. But sloths are crepuscular, which means they are most active at dusk and at dawn,” Smith says.

She suggests visiting the sloths first when you arrive, ideally just after 5 p.m. Another stop that is sure to entertain, but may not be on your usual route, is the reptile house.

Five stops to hit at ZooLights:

  • Small Mammal House: See the sloth and others
  • Kids’ Farm: Experience the petting zoo
  • Think Tank: See orangutans get ready for bed
  • Visitors’ Center: See the gingerbread exhibit
  • Solar-powered carousel: Ride for $3

“The reptile house is absolutely fantastic at ZooLights,” Smith says. “A lot of the reptiles are active at dusk and at night, so when you go in there, they’re moving, active and eating which is really fun.”

New this year at ZooLights: About 20,000 more bulbs. Putting up the 500,000 total lights for the show is a big job that starts far before the season, says Dan Pierron, special events manager for the zoo.

“In order to get these lights up in time, we actually start wrapping lights around the trees in the beginning of October,” Pierron says.

“Guests don’t see them unless they’re really looking for them – but we have to take that little break for Boo at the Zoo. In the beginning of November is when we start bringing out the very obvious light displays,” he says.

It’s a big job that has to be coordinated with the animal programs for each house, so each species’ needs are taken care of.

“We want to make sure we space the colors out, so we have a different look every time you turn the corner,” Pierron says. “But also we want to make sure we’re keeping our animals in mind.”

This year’s ZooLights also has additions like musical light displays, a color-morphing light garden, and the zoo’s new solar carousel that will be operating. Visitors can take a ride for $3.

Thousands stop by ZooLights every year, says Devin Murphy, a spokesperson for the zoo, especially on warmer evenings. So it’s smart to get there early and consider visiting on a cooler evening.

Although the park is flooded with evening foot traffic, most of the animals get accustomed to the change quickly, says Smith.

“The first night that something’s different, the animals will wonder,” Smith says. “And then once they become used to it, they can pretty much ignore it. As someone who’s been inside these enclosures cleaning them, you don’t really notice the visiting public. You don’t hear them, you don’t notice them that much, [the animals] are in their own little world in there.”

The free event runs most nights through Jan. 1, 2013. For more information on exhibits and scheduling, visit the National Zoo’s website. For coupons to use during the ZooLights exhibit, go to the Friends of the National Zoo’s Facebook page.

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(Copyright 2012 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)