- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 11, 2004

Hundreds of parents with children in tow came through the massive glass doors of the visitor center at the Smithsonian National Zoological Park in Northwest yesterday, carrying Christmas presents for those less fortunate.

The annual holiday celebration, hosted by the Friends of the National Zoo (FONZ), this year included a educational twist — interactive games and arts and crafts for children to learn how animals in their own backyards and beyond adapt to winter.

Before the fun got under way, however, many of the children dropped off a present for another child or pet who might not get a gift during the holiday season.

“We’ve had over 100 toys brought in so far and a fair amount of animal food,” said Al Stenstrup, a FONZ volunteer who lives in Northwest and worked at the gift donation table during the four-hour event. “It’s primarily the little kids who are dropping off the gifts, which is so good because they are giving gifts to other children.”

Pam Bucklinger, FONZ’s manager of membership and educational programs, said the donated gifts are given to various charities throughout the area, including the Family Place, Alexandria Battered Women’s Shelter, Calvary Bilingual Multi-Cultural Center, Mary Center and area humane societies.

“The charities we support, we have always supported, and they depend on our [gift] donations,”she said. “Over the past nine years, there has been a decline [in donations]. There are so many charity opportunities out there, but we refuse to give up this event because we love giving to charities. Besides, this is fun.”

The Blue Sky Puppet Theatre brightened the little face of Faith McClam, an 8-year-old who attends LaSalle Elementary School in Northeast. Faith said she enjoyed the show that featured a red-nosed rein-dog named Rufus.

“I Iiked the puppet show — it was funny. And I liked the different characters and voices,” she said before she took a sip of peppermint hot chocolate from Starbucks, which set up shop outside the visitor center. The coffee company teamed up with FONZ for the Christmas event, and staffers handed out free cups of gingerbread lattes and peppermint hot chocolate.

A 3-pound red-tailed hawk, perched on the arm of zookeeper Chris Sommers, mesmerized the audience gathered in an auditorium to learn how the strong, muscular birds manage during the cold, winter months.

“Red tails are the most common wintering hawk in North America,” Ms. Sommers said. “People riding down highways can easily see them perched on telephone poles.”

She explained how the hawk hunts its prey and disguises itself.

“When they hunt they usually circle in the air, then they tuck their wings in and come right down,” Ms. Sommers said. “The red-tailed hawk is opportunistic because it eats all kinds of prey, which is an advantage. If there are no mice, then the hawk will eat a bird.”

Not far away, children busied themselves with some creative arts and crafts projects, compliments of Debbi Hanibal, a.k.a. “the Craft Queen,” a FONZ naturalist who enjoys finding fun and educational ways to teach children.

Ms. Hanibal set up four different crafts demonstrating winter adaptation. FONZ volunteers helped the children, if needed. The youngsters made butterflies out of coffee filters, crayons and pipe cleaners. Others created a snowshoe hare from a rabbit cut-out, cotton, crayons, leaves and Popsicle sticks.

“During the summer, the fur of the snowshoe hare is brown,” she said. “During the winter, it turns white, like snow. That’s its camouflage.”

Ms. Hanibal admitted her favorite arts-and-crafts adaptation centered on hibernation. The children used bear cutouts and made little caves using brown paper bags. They added leaves inside the caves and snow made of cotton.

“Then, the bears go in and sleep through the winter,” she said.

“We want the children to have fun, but if you can teach them something while they’re here, that’s great,” Ms. Hanibal said. “If they make a snowshoe hare, they are likely to remember that it turns brown in the summer and white during the winter. And if they make a little cave [for hibernation], it’s something for children to build on, and it’s fun.”

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