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Smithsonian Perspectives

The National Zoo and its branch, the CRC, pioneer conservation biology and seek new ways of support

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The Smithsonian Institution provides me never-ending wonderment in the scale and depth of its activities. My latest adventure was a visit to the Conservation & Research Center (CRC), which is a branch of the National Zoological Park — the Zoo — in Rock Creek Park. The NZP and the CRC are yet another example of how the Smithsonian, over time, grows, adapts and extends its activities, usually at the prodding of members of the staff who have interesting ideas.

The Zoo was the idea of a 19th-century taxidermist, William Hornaday, who convinced Secretary Samuel P. Langley that the space immediately to the south of the Castle (where the Enid A. Haupt Garden is now located) ought to be occupied by live mammals of North America. And so it came to pass that the Smithsonian Institution created a zoo of sorts — to accompany exhibitions of stuffed animals. From that modest origin eventually emerged the National Zoo and the Institution nurtured yet again a new function.

The NZP-CRC is a "natural" outcome of such an undertaking by the Smithsonian. Simple exhibition is insufficient in much the same way that teaching without accompanying research is too thin a menu for prestigious colleges and universities. Our museums combine exhibition with historical and analytical research concerning the artifacts, their contextual history, their care and conservation and, often, subject matters in fields related to the collections.

Not surprisingly, the National Zoo's CRC has a similar agenda focusing on the "collection." Founded in 1975 in Front Royal, Virginia, the CRC is interested in zoo-management practices, healthy environments for animals in zoos, and exemplary techniques of veterinary medicine. But this is only the beginning. The CRC, like its parent, is also concerned with the maintenance of habitat for various creatures and the training of personnel, especially in Third World countries where one finds most of the rarest animals extant. This has led to a concentrated effort to protect and enhance endangered animal species, identify critical habitats and develop habitat-management techniques designed for these ends.

The CRC and the Zoo are thus leaders in the relatively new field of conservation biology, and their activities relate to similar ecological undertakings at the National Museum of Natural History, the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center on the Chesapeake Bay, and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, in Panama.

The CRC's activities have been extended to more general training and research on supportive techniques, such as radio telemetry, microcomputer applications, geographical information systems, wildlife-survey techniques, protected-areas management and others.

A chief activity of the CRC is spawning its collection (by natural breeding and artificial insemination) as well as producing members of endangered species for other zoos and for release in the wild. A good example of the latter is the black-footed ferret, which the CRC is breeding with success for return to habitats in Wyoming and nearby states, from which they had largely disappeared. Similarly, exotic animals are being bred, including clouded leopards, tree kangaroos, red pandas, maned wolves, various ungulates and a number of tropical birds.

The CRC exemplifies an important aspect of the depth and excitement of the Smithsonian mission. Its activities directly enhance the survivorship of endangered species in the wild as well as train field personnel involved in their preservation. The Institution today is also heartily engaged in providing public education and enjoyment through myriad other exhibitions and programs.

The CRC also exemplifies the fiscal challenge that the Smithsonian faces as a whole. About 75 percent of the Institution's budget comes from direct federal appropriations. An additional amount comes from federal research funds for which scholars in the Institution compete. It is quite likely that our federal funding will erode as Congress and the President seek to erase the deficit. The Smithsonian is still a favored "agency" in the sense that we will not be dealt with as harshly as some others. But it seems clear that we will continue to be vulnerable to cuts in our base budget.

We are currently taking a deep look at our multiple activities. We will probably have to reduce our expenditure of federal funds for salaries and expenses. Some of the saving will occur through efficiency measures, such as consolidations and reductions in administration. The future of our programs, however, will be largely determined by our ability to raise new funds to replace lost federal funding.

The NZP-CRC can provide a place where various alternative funding sources are explored, created and enhanced. Already more than 50 percent of its operating budget comes from sources other than the Institution's federal appropriation. It has developed research grants from foundations and other privately run organizations. It has charged tuition for many of its training programs. It has developed with the Zoo support group — Friends of the National Zoo — a source of private funding for its summer camp for youth. There are other possibilities.

Whether the Smithsonian Institution can maintain its depth, quality, accessibility and breadth in the future will depend on skillful development of alternative sources of financial support. The Zoo and the CRC — especially given its relative youth and flexibility — can usefully explore such sources.

By I. Michael Heyman

About I. Michael Heyman
I. Michael Heyman

I. Michael Heyman served as the secretary of the Smithonian Institution from 1994 to 1999.

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