The Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington is home to hundreds of types of animals on exhibit for visitors to see. But less than 100 miles away, members of 20 species live, out of public view, with scientists and researchers in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. It’s like a college campus, but for wild animals.
The Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute is a research and breeding center in Front Royal, Virginia. Scientists who live on site play an important role in studying, breeding and training members of endangered species or species already extinct in the wild. Devin Murphy, a communications specialist for the Smithsonian, said the property was bought in the mid-1970s because its 3,200 acres provided ample space for animals to roam.
KidsPost recently got an exclusive look inside the institute and an opportunity to learn about a few of the species living there.
What looks like a simple, red brick building is a facility dedicated to fast-running flightless birds. Guam rails are extinct in the wild and haven’t been seen on Guam, an island U.S. territory in the Western Pacific Ocean, for more than 20 years. There are 12 of them in gated indoor spaces with shrubs and trees.
Conservationists want to establish a sustainable population of Guam rails on the island, but they’re not in a hurry.
Guam rails are secretive and territorial, making them sometimes difficult to breed. A resident 3-year-old Guam rail, Tasi, is actually quite sociable. But he was hand-raised by his keeper, Erica Royer, and when she let him out of his enclosure, he followed a KidsPost reporter everywhere. Because he is used to human contact, he wouldn’t do well in the wild.
“His purpose is purely for education as an ambassador for his species,” Royer said.
At the facility, other rails are paired to breed and produce eggs. As with a lot of species, the younger you release them in the wild the better off they are. “From when they hatch, we keep them for at least six months,” Royer said.
Guam is not ready for the birds to come back. The island has about 1 million to 2 million brown tree snakes that the U.S. Department of Agriculture is working to get rid of. Snakes reached Guam aboard cargo ships after World War II and preyed on the flightless birds, leading to their extinction in the wild. For now, the birds are sent to a breeding center on Guam and then released on neighboring islands, Cocos and Rhoda, which are snake-free.
Another endangered species studied at the Conservation Biology Institute, Przewalski’s horse, is the only truly wild horse left in the world. These horses are found in the wild only in Mongolia, China and Kazakhstan. All of the 1,900 Przewalski’s [pronounced sheh-VAHL-skees] horses alive today are descended from 14 founders.
Dolores Reed, a supervisory biologist, takes care of six mares (female) and 10 stallions (male) at the site. The goal is not to release the horses at the institute. Researchers study how the animals interact. They share their observations and successes with breeding centers in China, hoping to help the efforts of those centers to reintroduce horses into the wild.
“They are very prehistoric in their behavior, compared to a domestic horse,” Reed said. “They’re very herd-motivated. They don’t like being by themselves.”
Using GPS technology makes it easier to track and study their movements and to understand how and when they socialize with other horses.
“You want to have your strongest, healthiest, genetically diverse population . . . to hopefully move that species back into the wild,” said Mel Songer, a research ecologist for the Smithsonian.
One of the reasons that specialized breeding facilities get better results is that they’re quiet. The institute has a gated community of 30 cheetahs, and the noise of the National Zoo’s D.C. neighborhood would make the job of breeding them harder.
Cheetahs are at risk of becoming extinct because of loss of habitat and because they are hunted by lions, leopards and humans. Cheetah biologist Adrienne Crosier said the goal of breeding programs is to keep the worldwide population stable. In the past 50 years, cheetahs have become extinct in at least 13 countries.
Crosier is working with 56 other facilities in the country, sharing observations and breeding techniques. Cheetahs are renowned for their bursts of speed. But they also stand out in another way. Unlike other big cats, they do not roar. They have a unique vocal style called a stutter bark. They use it to locate their cubs or to signal their readiness to breed, a clue helpful to scientists.
“Cheetahs are pretty challenging to breed,” Crosier said. “There’s a lot of . . . really subtle behaviors that are difficult for us to interpret. We’ve had some cats that we’ve tried to breed and just were never successful to get them to breed.” Those cats are not abandoned. They stay at the facility or are sent to zoos around the country.
Scientists at the institute in Front Royal continue learning about the species studied there and how they can be protected in the long run, Murphy said.
“We never stop,” she said. “We are never expecting to end any program one day and be like, ‘Okay we’re done.’ ”
The Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute is open to the public one day a year. This year October 5 is Conservation Discovery Day. The hours are from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. The event is free, but a paid parking pass is required. Some activities are only for high-schoolers. For more information, visit nationalzoo.si.edu/events/conservation-discovery-day.