- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 2, 2002

An infant elephant, two cuddly pandas and a sparkling spring day drew 20,000 revelers to the annual African-American Family Celebration day at the National Zoo yesterday. The crowd numbered twice as many as last year, when rain and memories of a shooting kept revelers away.
The century-old Washington tradition packed the zoo's exhibit houses and grassy hills with smiling children and relaxed parents basking in a sun that made long guest appearances between overcast skies and wind.
"They get their animals," said Elisa Thibeau with her children Sarah, 8, and David, 5, of Gaithersburg. "I get the cherry blossoms."
An outing to the zoo is their "spring thing," Mrs. Thibeau said. "It's so relaxed and friendly and organized. With everything we are all dealing with the zoo shooting, September 11, violence in Israel you realize you have to create your own present."
Most of those on hand yesterday agreed they weren't going to allow a shooting two years ago between groups of teen-agers an incident that left seven children injured spoil the tradition. Zoo visitors also said the increased police presence made them feel more secure.
Phillice Jackson of Prince George's County said she has been attending the celebration for three decades. Yesterday, she brought her sons, 10-year-old Mathew and 2-year-old Tyler, the latter on his first visit.
"I like the reptiles and the hot dogs," said Mathew. "There are so many different things here."
His friend, Marcus Hall, 10, said he was happy to see the new baby elephant and giraffe.
Tyler was busy trying to get Norman the sea lion to stay on his side of the pool.
The animals are great, said father Rodney Jackson. "But it's the family quality time" that makes the day special.
The Young Marines, a youth group, were out in force, helping visitors, handing out flyers and assisting with the activities.
Sisters Brittany and Jaclyn Westfall 8 and 9, respectively came from Michigan to help. They said they were initially nervous about traveling to the city alone, but were fine now.
"We like the arts and crafts," they said shyly.
Anthony Matthews, 15, was also on hand to help, as he has been for the past two years. He says he likes the work because he likes animals and meeting new people.
"It's fun," he said. "I like taking kids on tours. Sometime, they jump on my back. Today, I am supervising the sergeants and making sure they are on post to serve people."
In the end, it was all about fun and the furry creatures.
Children watched magic tricks and laughed at a clown. They also visited with the Easter Bunny and had their faces painted.
The visitors stared at a pacing sloth bear and loudly wished Kiska, a brown bear, would do something anything. Ditto for the lazy camels, which couldn't be bothered with visitors. And children cheered and clapped at Norman, the sea lion who pranced and performed before clapping back at them.
There was the ooohing over the little elephant, born last year, who is still finding his way.
Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, the cuddly giant pandas, snoozed the day away, but that didn't stop visitors from walking by for a glimpse. And Jana, the baby giraffe, was more animated, staring back at those who stared first.


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