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Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Zoo Review: Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute

When William T. Hornaday first began to image the institution that was to become the Smithsonian National Zoological Park, he had something special in mind.  Rather than making a copy of the zoos that were cropping up across Europe, he envisioned a different kind of facility, one that would help him satisfy his ambition of saving - through captive breeding - the vanishing wildlife of North America, the American bison in particular.  Essentially, he envisioned the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute.

The only problem was, he was about one hundred years too early.

Founded in 1974, SCBI (formerly known as CRC - Conservation and Research Center) is tucked away in the farmlands of Front Royal, about an hour west of Washington DC.  Unlike its more famous sister institution in the nation's capital, it is closed to the public, only open during certain open houses and special events.  Prior to being owned by the Smithsonian, it was used by the US Army to supply horses and mules for military use.  Now, it is a breeding center for some of the most endangered species on earth, especially those which need some space and are too shy or delicate to breed easily in an urban zoo setting.  Among the species represented here include three species of crane (hooded, red-crowned, and white-naped), as well as brown kiwis, Mongolian wild horses, scimitar-horned oryxes, clouded leopards, and maned wolves.  Many of the black-footed ferrets being reintroduced into the wild start their lives in Front Royal.

Among the endangered species being worked with at SCBI are birds of the Mariana Islands, such as Micronesian kingfishers.  With highly endangered species, such breeding facilities - allowing multiple members of a species to be housed together, rather than a pair as is the case at many zoos - have a major advantage.  By housing lots of animals together in facilities designed specifically for breeding purposes, animals can easily be moved and re-paired until an ideal breeding arrangement is found.  For that reason, many of the nation's most genetically valuable "problem cranes" are sent to SCBI for breeding.

In 2001, Secretary of the Smithsonian Lawrence Small announced that the facility would be closed, part of his plan to refocus the Smithsonian around those features which were most profitable and attracted the most visitors - after deafening outcry, he backed away from the plan.  Still, it seems that the Smithsonian is now looking at SCBI with the philosophy of "use it or lose it", and it seems like the facility has been expanding rapidly since then (when I made my first and only visit, a new facility was under construction for breeding cheetahs).

The most impressive change, however, has probably been the new partnership with George Mason University to established a PhD program in conservation biology, where students learn the latest methods and philosophies of the field.  Such an integrated approach between zoo and field biology is essential to the future survival of many species.  It is developments like this that show that SCBI - while unsung and unrecognized by many people outside of the zoo community - is an important leader in the fight to save biodiversity.  If you get a chance to attend an open-house, do so.  You won't see a huge variety of animals, or a lot of beautiful exhibits.  You will, however, get a new insight into how some of our rarest species are being saved from extinction.

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