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Sunday, March 2, 2014

Zoo Review: Virginia Living Museum

The Commonwealth of Virginia has four AZA-accredited institutions, three of which are crowded together on the east coast of the state.  Fortunately, all three of these facilities – the Virginia Zoo, the Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center, and the Virginia Living Museum – have very different characters.  The Virginia Living Museum was the last of the three that I’ve gotten the chance to visit, and it is, I’ve decided, my absolute favorite.

Located in Newport News, the Virginia Living Museum highlights the wildlife, plant life, and geology of the Old Dominion.  The facility consists of two major components.  Visitors first enter the main building, which is itself divided into four themed galleries.  A mountain forest gallery houses squirrels, chipmunks, and snakes.  The nocturnal gallery displays bats, owls, and flying squirrels.  A massive saltwater tank (home to a loggerhead turtle, as well as giant fish) dominates the coastal gallery.  Visitors can also explore a recreated cave in the underground gallery.  Interspersed among these terrestrial animals are several aquatic exhibits, from an enormous lobster to eels and porcupine fish to a hypnotizing tank of sea nettles, illuminated under blacklights.   At the entrance of each of these galleries is a little “discovery zone”, where educators use bones, fossils, taxidermy mounts, and other biofacts to give guests a hands-on appreciation of what they are learning about. 

Sturgeon, striped bass (rockfish), and other native fish in one of the aquariums at the VLM

Probably the biggest highlights of the building are the two massive walk-through habitats.  Visitors can view these two exhibits – a cypress swamp and a mountain stream – either from above or at ground level with underwater viewing.  Ducks and other native birds, as well as a variety of fishes and turtles roam these habitats, with side-exhibits of smaller reptiles and amphibians.  A side exhibit in the cypress swamp houses American alligator (if I had one complaint about the VLM, it’s that I didn’t think the gator exhibit was especially great, either in size, complexity, or naturalism, especially compared to many of the other exhibits).

Outside the main building’s back door, the visitor can set out upon the boardwalk nature trail, which will lead past many of the museum’s larger occupants.  Red fox, gray fox, coyote (not actually a Virginia native, but rather a recent invader from the west), bobcat, bald eagle, and vulture – turkey and black – are found along the trail in spacious open-topped enclosures that offer unobstructed views.  The exhibits are set among beautiful mature woodlands, and are in fact simply fenced in sections of forest.  The two largest exhibits are for red wolves and white-tailed deer.  The highlight of the trail is the coastal aviary, where an assorted of ducks and herons can be found.  This aviary is built into a natural river, and the surrounding waters are teeming with wild birds – I was unsure at first whether the cormorants and mergansers swimming by outside were escapees or curious wild residents, looking in on their confined kin.  The trail ends across the water with raccoons, beavers, and river otters, the later seen with underwater viewing.

Virginia Living Museum doesn’t just educate – it also inspires advocacy.  Located near the main building is a living green house, a model dwelling full of educational interactives on how visitors could lead more environmentally friendly lives.  Something that really impressed me about the museum was how happy the visitors all seemed.  It may be crazy, but I attribute a lot of that to the name.  Zoos, for better or worse, carry some connotations with the name and some negative baggage.  Not only that, but they inspire certain expectations among visitors – if you were to rename this place a zoo, I’m sure guests would complain about the absence of lions, gorillas, and elephants.  By changing the expectation of what they will encounter, you instead make every animal a pleasant surprise.  This is especially true because many of the animals – alligators, wolves, bobcats – aren’t ones that many people would think of as “Virginian.” 

By introducing visitors – both locals and tourists – to the wildlife of the state, the Virginia Living Museum helps its guests make a connection to the natural world that is around them in their very own backyards.  Either as a stand-alone institution or as part of a larger zoo or aquarium, every state, I feel, should have its own version of the Virginia Living Museum.

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