One of the upsides to this weather, besides the opportunity to wear your warmest knitted clothes with pride, is that this is panda weather! I haven't been to San Diego Zoo, but I've been to Memphis and National Zoo and talked to people who have been to San Diego. From what I can tell, the best panda viewing in the United States is right here in Grant Park. Visitors can get closer to the pandas than in Washington or San Diego and there are more pandas here than in Memphis. (After visiting Memphis, I am pretty sure their exhibit design is based on ZooAtlanta's.) So, why go view the zoo in this weather?
Pandas are always on exhibit. There is always at least one panda in the dayrooms or in the outdoor enclosures. During the summer, Yang Yang was often behind the scenes because it was too warm outside and there are only two dayrooms. But during the autumn and winter, there are some days when all four pandas, Mom, Dad, big sister, and little brother are on exhibit. (At left is Xi Lan, after climbing to the top.)
The zoo isn't crowded in the cold. This is particularly great if you are an adult panda fanatic. In the summertime, there are lots of families and children and it can be hard as an adult to get a good spot. Parents sometimes look at you unkindly, not realizing that you've waited 45 minutes to finally get a mostly-unobstructed view. Or folks don't always recognize that someone has made a special trip from a great distance. But in the winter, you can have the pandas all to yourself or nearly so.
This is also a great time to meet other panda fanatics. Only the true panda aficionados will hang out. And it is wonderful to hear the stories the docents or other panda fans can tell.
If you enjoy photography, it is much easier to get good photographs on these quiet, uncrowded winter days. If pandas are in the yards, then you don't even have the glare of glass. And if they are inside, there are fewer fingerprints on the glass because there are both fewer children in the zoo and because they are wearing mittens and gloves. (At right is Yang Yang, thoroughly involved in a meal, viewed through the glass. Yes, he was that close to me, with just the glass between us.)
One of my favorite memories of Mei Lan as a cub is from a cool winter morning. There were about half a dozen people watching her, all of us spread out enough not to interfere with each other, all of us with a good view of the action, and all of us with a camera of some kind, from my pocket digital to a SLR with zoom telephoto lens to a video recorder. It was early in the day, so there was just the quiet munching of a happy panda cracking her breakfast bamboo and the whispering whirring of the panda paparazzi recording her every move.
Lun Lun and Xi Lan -- like mother, like son.
And speaking of Miss Mei -- this month is your last chance to see her unless you plan to visit Chengdu yourself. She's nearly grown up and is about ready to go charm the young male pandas at the breeding center. Little brother Xi Lan is beginning to wean from Lun Lun and will soon be housed separately. So if you want to see Miss Mei or if you want to see interactions between Lun Lun and Xi Lan together, get thee down to the zoo pronto! And if you are a real over the top fan, there is a special super-deluxe panda nightcrawler program on 23 January.
One last note, many of the animals at ZooAtlanta are African species who are not on exhibit in the cooler weather. If you have another favorite critter, be sure to ask the folks at the front gate. They do a very good job of knowing what is and isn't out, or what will be out later as the day warms up, and they can assist you to make sure you'll know what to expect and where to find the best animal action.