Front Royal’s a pretty ordinary Virginia town.
Peopled by a congenial mix of lifelong residents and retirees escaping the Washington, D.C., rat race, it nestles unremarkably at the edge of Shenandoah National Park. Dogs gambol in the verdant new dog park, cows graze, and birds chirp overhead.
And, on 3,200 acres just outside the center of town, pandas guzzle bamboo, cheetahs speed through former cow pastures, and nearly extinct ferrets train for life on the prairie.
Many locals aren’t even aware of the existence of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI), the National Zoo’s field research and breeding facility. It’s home to scientific researchers from all over the globe, as well as more than 20 species of endangered animals.
Originally constructed as an Army remount depot, the campus retains many original buildings and features, such as a cemetery where long-dead Army horses slumber under dogwoods. After incarnations as a WWII POW camp, a K-9 training center and an experimental cattle-breeding station, the property was turned over to the Smithsonian in the 1970s.
SCBI isn’t a zoo. It opens to the public only one day a year, and the animals are rarely in viewer-friendly habitats. SCBI species run the gamut from small songbirds to big cats, but they all have one thing in common: they’re critically endangered. T
The institute’s mission is twofold, learning more about these vital creatures while breeding more of them to replace those eliminated by habitat loss, climate change or predation. SCBI researchers collaborate closely with their colleagues at the National Zoo, and occasionally animals rotate between the facilities. When I visited last fall, panda-keeper Ginger Eye was preparing new mother Nutmeg and her cub for their move to the big city, where they now star in D.C.’s red panda exhibit.
One veterinarian, Kelly Helmick, is responsible for all of the SCBI animals, including hoof stock like scimitar-horned oryxes and Przewalski’s horses, birds from kiwis to siskins, maned wolves, cheetahs, clouded leopards, red pandas and more. It’s an extraordinary mandate when you consider that many veterinarians treating domestic animals refuse to take patients beyond dogs and cats. Fortunately, Helmick trained for this. Her specialty is zoo and wildlife medicine, or the “care of free-range animals,” and for her and her veterinary technician, “variety is the spice of life.”
Dolores Reed, supervisory biologist for hoof stock, arrived at SCBI in 1986 after working in a traditional zoo. She’s spent most of her career in Front Royal, and appreciates the sheer physical scale of the SCBI campus. Her charges are territorial herd animals, unwilling to share small spaces. “Zoos don’t have this type of space; they can’t hold more than a couple of males, maybe until they’re sexually mature.”
A larger herd affords Reed the opportunity to study behavior in a more realistic setting, as well as offering far more genetic diversity for breeding. It’s better for the animals too. She says, “They get to stay in the herd, and they don’t have to deal with constant interruptions.” However, the space creates challenges for researchers and keepers managing their charges. Reed points out, “In a lot of zoos they don’t have to physically go in with the animals [to perform tests and collect data]. We have to; they have the space to get away from us.”
With larger communities of animals, staying on top of herd management is key. Reed knows the personalities of the animals, where each falls in the herd hierarchy, and how well each cooperates with her staff. Juggling personalities proves essential to the animals’ safety and welfare.
“There’s always somebody at the bottom, and you have to manage the herd for that animal,” she says. In the case of the scimitar-horned oryxes, one sorry outcast is pastured separately to prevent attacks from more dominant herd members and ensure that he receives sufficient food.
The isolation of the Front Royal campus facilitates breeding some of the shyer species, like red pandas. Thanks to half a century of tremendous efforts in education and conservation, most of the public is familiar with giant pandas, making a triumphant comeback in the wild. Their smaller, but equally darling, red cousins are currently under far greater threat. Relatively little is known about this elusive species, but more knowledge is crucial to conservation efforts. Devin Murphy, SCBI’s communications specialist, explains, “Right now, what we don’t know about red pandas is similar to where we were with giant pandas in the 1970s.”
SCBI houses up to 15 red pandas for breeding and research. These include the most famous red panda in the world, Rusty. Rusty’s 2013 escape from the National Zoo made headlines, his day-long exploration of Washington, D.C., captivating social media until he was recaptured. Shortly after that the superstar retired to a quieter life as a stud panda in Front Royal, where he seems to revel in his new responsibilities.
SCBI has led the way in re-introducing a number of endangered species to the wild. Black-footed ferrets, native to the Western United States, were thought extinct until 1981, when a small community was discovered. All existing black-footed ferrets descend from those 18 individuals, which makes retaining genetic diversity in the breeding population a complex puzzle. Ferret researchers maintain a genetic “stud book,” using a computer algorithm to rank breeding pairs. Originally developed by Jon Ballou, a Smithsonian scientist, this same algorithm is now employed by every managed-species breeding program around the world.
Personalities factor into the calculations, too. Ferret-keeper Vicki Lake clarifies that, just like humans, ferrets demand certain characteristics in their mates. The SCBI scientists serve as a ferret dating service, pre-screening eligible males to meet the fussiest females’ high standards. Despite their drop-dead cuteness, black-footed ferrets aren’t the easiest characters. Lake declares, “As adorable as they may be, they are mean, mean, mean little carnivores! They’re not cuddly like pet-store ferrets, which are descended from European polecats.” Darn.
The scientists must be doing something right, because they’ve successfully bred hundreds of ferrets. Much like racehorses, the ferrets’ names indicate their family trees. Lake gives examples: “Bigelow’s mom was Sweet Tea; Tulip was from Rosebud. The Pasta line was very prolific: we have Linguini, Fettuccini, and so on.” Ferrets are microchipped, and can be monitored even after release by ring readers placed at the entrance to their burrows.
Most of the ferrets raised at SCBI are destined for release on the Colorado prairie. Consequently, there’s an early emphasis on teaching them to catch live prey. Practice begins at around 50 days of age with live rats; ferret mothers instruct their offspring in necessary skills. Once it comes time to move the ferrets, Lake and a colleague drive them cross-country personally. They generally stop in Louisville, Kentucky, where the ferrets overnight in a local breeding facility, and the humans in a hotel.
Unlike dogs, ferrets aren’t the most enthusiastic travelers. They protest vociferously at the beginning and end of the trip, though they settle in for the long drive, hunkering down in improvised burrows to savor their “to-go boxes” of half a rat each. Once in Colorado, Lake says, the ferrets “have a whole other boot camp, where they get introduced to live prairie dogs in the burrows.” Before graduation and release, they must pass certain tests, including killing a live prairie dog, their primary food source in the wild.
Another re-introduction project, that of the glorious scimitar-horned oryx, has a more global reach. The oryxes released in the Central African nation of Chad are actually raised in Abu Dhabi, but SCBI plays a vital research role in the initiative. Artificial insemination techniques have been developed here, facilitating genetic diversity without the hassle of international animal relocation. As Reed, who serves as regional population manager for the oryxes’ global stud book, notes, “It’s a lot easier to move the semen than the actual animal.”
Oryx researchers have also pioneered cutting-edge satellite transmitters, allowing scientists to track the released oryxes’ real- time data, including location, grazing patterns, and biological reactions to stressors. The collars bearing the transmitters were field tested on SCBI’s large oryx herd, determining the ideal weight, fit and battery configuration.
Not all of SCBI’s acres are inhabited by animals. Some are working farmland, growing food such as corn for the residents. Bamboo plantations dot the property, feeding not only Front Royal’s pandas, but the National Zoo’s as well. Environmental conservation is taken seriously, too. A newly installed solar panel array graces a hilltop, while repurposing is practically an art form. The panda habitat is primarily composed of disused corn cribs. The ferrets nest in plastic totes, prepping for the burrow lifestyle within inverted plant pots and drain tile.
SCBI’s staff emphasizes that their charges are wild animals. The focus is on conservation, not bonding. Socializing the animals to connect with human beings is counterproductive: not only are many slated for reintroduction to the wild, but researchers must study natural, not domesticated, behavior.
Lake, the ferret keeper, captures the tension of caring deeply for the animals, while needing them to remain wild. “The babies get cute very quickly, and also mean very quickly. We get one magical day — day 35 or 36 — when their eyes open and they’re naive and adorable and you can take pictures with them. By the next day, Mommy has told them all kinds of horrible things about us and then they’re mean and nasty and start biting … which is exactly what we want!”
Interested in viewing this fascinating institution for yourself? SCBI opens to the public once a year. This year’s Conservation Discovery Day is scheduled for Oct. 6, 2018, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. For details, call (202) 633-3045, or check nationalzoo.si.edu/ events/conservation-discovery-day in late summer.