A Visit to the Natonal Zoo’s “Ark of Life”

Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough journeys to Front Royal, Virginia, to find out the latest in animal research

Red pandas
Red pandas receive state-of-the-art care at the Conservation Biology Institute. Mehgan Murphy / NZP, SI

A 90-minute drive from the National Mall and the bustle of the capital, on 3,250 verdant, rolling acres next door to Shenandoah National Park, sits a hidden gem in our network of museums and centers: the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, in Front Royal, Virginia, a unit of the National Zoo.

This is the sort of behind-the-scenes operation that all zoos wish they could have, an ark of life. Away from the demands of public exhibitions, our scientists study red pandas, clouded leopards, maned wolves, red-crowned cranes and other threatened animals—25 species and some 275 animals in all. Many of the animals roam (or sprint!) across the hillsides, in ample enclosures of several acres.

Here, our researchers have been at the forefront of adapting techniques developed for humans or domestic animals—including egg- and sperm-freezing—to endangered breeds. Yet close observation and top-notch care supplement the high-tech approaches: By monitoring hormonal levels in female cheetahs, our scientists can tell when the big cats are stressed—because they don’t get along with a neighboring female, say—which reduces their ability to reproduce.

Last May, Front Royal saw the rare birth of two cheetahs in captivity; the cubs were brought into the world by Caesarean section. Now they’re thriving at the National Zoo. On a personal note, a Przewalski’s horse born during my tenure, an endangered ancient line of horses, was graciously named after my wife, Anne. (Anne, I can report, is now a healthy 585 pounds, and I do mean the horse.)

The grounds and some of the institute’s red-clay-roofed buildings have a rich history, having once served as the site of an Army remount depot, where cavalry horses were bred and trained. And while there’s no shortage of striking fauna at the institute, the facility is also rooted in regional issues. To give just one example, scientists study the effects of white-tailed deer overpopulation on local wildflowers and small mammals.

This year we’re especially excited about the expansion of an undergraduate program in conservation, run in partnership with George Mason University. Since 2008, the Smithsonian-Mason School of Conservation has brought roughly 15 students each semester onto its grounds to take courses, work in labs and do fieldwork, but space has been cramped. Last fall we opened a new dorm, dining hall and academic and research center, built to strict standards of sustainability, and we now can take on 40 or more young people each term, recruited from colleges across the country. The school takes a deeply interdisciplinary approach: If our students become biologists, we want them to be able to talk policy; if they become policymakers, we want them to be able to talk biology. On this splendid campus, we’re creating renanissance conservationists.

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