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The Liveliest Museum

The Liveliest Museum

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"Lions and tigers and bears" is what Dorothy and her friends in Oz called them, in a nervous chorus. "Charismatic megavertebrates" is how Dr. Lucy Spelman, the recently appointed director of the Smithsonian's National Zoological Park, refers to them, and for good measure she includes in their number, among other species, elephants, giraffes, hippos, gorillas, sea lions, crocodiles and bald eagles. She's speaking of the animals that attract most families to zoos in the first place, the ones from so many of the earliest stories we're told as children. Dr. Spelman wants the National Zoo to be a model environment for charismatic megavertebrates — and for all the other species that share 163 green and hilly acres in the heart of Washington, D.C.

Zoo's Department of Animal Health. A specialist in the growing field of zoo medicine, she has developed anesthetic techniques for problem species such as otters and sea lions, and was the first scientist to publish research on anesthetizing Komodo dragons. She's at the forefront, as well, of efforts to devise treatment options for geriatric zoo animals. That's an essential concern, because animals live far longer in zoos, where they are carefully tended, than in their natural environment.

As chief veterinarian, Dr. Spelman began a systematic preventive medicine program for the Zoo's long-lived species. The animals have access to the latest diagnostic tests and medications (and to a degree of affection from Dr. Spelman and her staff that no doubt speeds the passing of many illnesses all by itself). During "ursid month," for example, the bears get their physicals, vaccinations, nail care and dental exams. Felids (cheetahs, lions, tigers), canids (wolves, foxes) and mustelids (otters, ferrets) have their own turns in the rotation. The great apes — the orangutans and gorillas?even undergo cardiovascular monitoring. Visitors to the Zoo rarely see this daily behind-the-scenes concern for the animals.

Zoos are museums exposed to the seasons, and what's most precious in them breathes and won't hold still. That immensely complicates the daily responsibilities of management and maintenance. Traditional museums are committed to showing their collections to best advantage — in a context, with an annotated identity. But a painting on a gallery wall is bounded by a frame, a precious gem by the dimensions of a case. Lions need a landscape, a living context, as do all zoo animals. By creating environments congenial to each species, Dr. Spelman and her staff are working to display to best advantage a collection that boasts horns and hooves and scales and hearts, and all the other attributes and susceptibilities of living creatures.

China — arrive shortly. Dr. Spelman has been overseeing the preparation of a renovated home for the pandas. Their indoor quarters have been brightened by murals of their native mountain homeland. And their outside yards are now generously proportioned, sloping gardens, outfitted with a host of panda-friendly options: ponds; sand wallows; live trees for shade; bamboo; giant dead trees, spiky with limbs for climbing; two massive grottoes, open to visitors' view, to provide cool air in summer; and a fogger and a mister to produce the moist air that's naturally agreeable to the animals.

Thanks to the creativity, care and devotion of Dr. Lucy Spelman and her team, for years to come, visitors will find here in the nation's capital a green swath of landscape utterly transformed by the casual motion of two black-and-white bears.

By Lawrence M. Small, Secretary

About Lawrence M. Small
Lawrence M. Small

Lawrence M. Small was the eleventh secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, serving from 2000 to 2007.

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