A close call for the National Zoo's Conservation and Research Center

Published on June 01, 2001
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Przewalski's horse
The work done at the CRC has included recovery and reintroduction programs for endangered species, such as the Przewalski's horse.

April and May were tense and heated times for science in Washington, DC, as secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, Lawrence M. Small, announced a proposal in early April to close the National Zoological Park's Conservation and Research Center in Front Royal, Va, by the end of this year. Immediate opposition came worldwide, including from some 70 scientists within Smithsonian institutions.

The CRC, a 3,200-acre site in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, some 70 miles from DC, has served as the research facility for the National Zoo for 26 years. It has a notable reputation for leadership in conservation research, training, and education.

The proposal, part of the fiscal 2002 budget request that Small sent to Congress on April 9, was an effort to shift $2.8 million to the Smithsonian's general science budget and remove the burden of managing the property at the CRC. Secretary Small also proposed to eliminate Smithsonian Productions and the Smithsonian Center for Materials Research and Education.

Secretary Small, former president and CEO of Fannie Mae, and the first nonacademic to run the Smithsonian, has been criticized recently for his alleged lack of understanding for the importance of research. He proposed that some CRC programs and positions could be transferred to the National Zoo, but many felt that the open, rural landscape of the center was the only place to conduct research successfully.

Dr. Lucy H. Spelman, a veterinarian and director of the National Zoo, was contacted by JAVMA for comment about her roles, if any, in the proposed closing, but was just leaving for a monthlong business trip to China.

In a letter to Sec Small, signed by 37 academic and professional associations, including the AVMA, the value of the CRC was assessed as "valuable far beyond the 2,000-plus publications in peer-reviewed scientific journals such as Nature, Science, and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that the CRC scientists have produced; or the competitive research grants exceeding $20 million in extramural funding that has been awarded to CRC scientists."

In addition, CRC scientists have contributed to 45 JAVMA scientific reports.

The letter went on to say, "The research conducted by the CRC involves partnerships with scientists around the world in multiple disciplines that include veterinary medicine, reproductive physiology, nutrition, field ecology, marine biology, molecular genetics, conservation biology and methodology, biodiversity monitoring and assessment, endangered species conservation, neotropical migratory bird conservation, marine mammal biology, animal behavior and breeding, recovery and reintroduction programs for critically imperiled species such as the clouded leopard, the Przewalski's horse, the Guam rail, the Micronesian kingfisher, the black-footed ferret, the golden-lion tamarin, and dozens of others."

Dennis O'Connor, PhD, the Smithsonian's undersecretary for science, told the Washington Post that a review of scientific work at the Smithsonian has been under way for some time, and that any reevaluation of programs was based on "the scientific questions where the Smithsonian can make the biggest contribution to the answer." It was the Smithsonian's board of regents that would make the final decision.

On the eve of May 7, Sec Small withdrew the proposal to close the center, stating that, although his intention initially was to save the substantial cost of managing the center, that message was lost in the backlash from members of the scientific community, the Smithsonian, Congress, and the media. The proposal was supposed to be reviewed by the board of regents the following day. Instead, the regents voted to create a scientific advisory panel.

"Just right now we are starting with a concept," Sec Small said. "We will take the time necessary to bring together the best possible people, and we expect there will be extensive interaction with our many research departments in the months ahead."

The saving of the center brought relief and continued praise for the work done at the CRC. Representative Frank Wolf, R-Va, an outspoken supporter of the CRC, said, "The work done there is world renowned and closing the facility would have been a mistake. If the CRC were closed, it would be impossible to replicate it anywhere else."

Dr. Wilbur Amand, executive director of the American Association of Zoo Veterinarians, said the association was very concerned when it heard of the "out-of-the-blue, initial plan" to close the center, but is now "pleased that Secretary Small has revisited the issue and is working toward a solution of maintaining the center."

A voice from the center itself came from Chris Wemmer, PhD and associate director for conservation at the CRC. "Obviously, we're very pleased that there is a stay and that there are no immediate plans to close the center," Wemmer said. "There are going to have to be ways and means of finding solutions that are acceptable to [Sec Small], that, hopefully, will not destroy 26 years of investment and the potential, 26 years from now, for what the CRC can still mean for conservation."