A requiem for the National Zoo’s invertebrate house

I love the National Zoo's cute baby animals as much as anyone. The panda cub, the foodie-named otters -- they even play music, squeeee! -- are among the zoo's star attractions and receive the resources and attention befitting of their ingenue roles.

A cuttlefish hunts a grass shrimp in its tank at the National Zoo's Invertebrate Exhibit. (Joe Elbert/The Washington Post)
A cuttlefish hunts a grass shrimp in its tank at the National Zoo's Invertebrate Exhibit. (The Washington Post)

But most of the animals on this planet are not cute. And at the National Zoo, most of the animals that are not cute -- by most people's definition of cute, at least -- live in the invertebrate house, which zoo officials announced will be closing this weekend due to lack of funding. Your last chance to see the spiders, shrimp and other animals without backbones is this Saturday, June 21.

Via my colleague Michael Ruane:

Some of the animals — the hissing cockroach, the bird-eating tarantula, the peppermint shrimp, among others — may be sent to other zoos, the zoo said. Some may be moved to other locations in the zoo. Some may have to be euthanized if new homes can’t be found. (Update: A zoo spokesperson says the zoo will not euthanize any healthy invertebrates.)

The exhibit has cost $1 million a year to operate, and needs an estimated $5 million in upgrades, the zoo said. Its five staff members will get jobs elsewhere in the zoo.


In this 2008 photo, Julia vanReeven and Travis Harper look down at the zoo visitors as they make their way through the invertebrate exhibit. They had just finished feeding a Pacific octopus. (The Washington Post)

There was never a line to get into the invertebrate house. It seemed to be a corner of the zoo that had been forgotten since the 70's -- the animals were cared for, of course, but the fishy-smelling building looked seriously shabby. I loved it anyway. Every time I went to the zoo, I'd glide past the neon tanks of anemone,  the bobbing nautilus, the octopus, may she rest in peace. Then, over to the creepy-crawlies, where all of the visitors would collectively get a case of the shivers from those hissing cockroaches, the tarantula and the golden orb spiders -- especially when the visitors realized that no pane of glass separated them from the latter arachnids. Every visit to the tucked-away exhibit house felt like a secret discovery.

Closing the invertebrate house presents a lopsided view of the animal kingdom to visitors. As the Smithsonian itself notes, invertebrates make up 99 percent of the world's known living species. The are "nature's unsung heroes, quietly playing vital roles in Earth's ecosystems," said a zoo press release about the closure. Some of the exhibits may return in a planned Hall of Biodiversity, eventually.

To pay respect to these unglamorous animals was to cheer for the underdog. Unfortunately, this Saturday is your last chance to do so. The panda can wait.


A peacock mantis shrimp peers out of its rock crevice in a tank at the National Zoo's Invertebrate Exhibit. (The Washington Post)
Maura Judkis covers culture, food, and the arts for the Weekend section and Going Out Guide.
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