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Under Your Nose: ‘Hidden Zoo’ Opens Gates

Center's Annual Conservation Festival Is Approaching

When people think of the National Zoo, it’s probably Tai Shan and the other animals that call the 163 acres amid Rock Creek Park in Northwest D.C. home that come to mind, not the “hidden zoo” out in Front Royal, Va., which occupies 3,250 acres of land.

The National Zoo refers to its conservation and science programs, including the Conservation and Research Center in Front Royal, as the hidden, behind-the-scenes zoo. Initially started as a breeding center for endangered birds and mammals, the CRC has one of the most extensive programs on conversation research biology and is home to about 30 species at any given time. [IMGCAP(1)]

Never heard of the CRC? That’s probably because for the most part, the research center is closed to the public. However, the CRC’s 11th annual Autumn Conservation Festival is just around the corner and is one of the only times throughout the year that the expansive grounds located at the edge of the Shenandoah National Park are open to the public.

“This event is unique,” CRC Education Program Manager Jennifer Buff said about the festival. “You come here to see the animals, but you leave having met the people who do the work. The actual scientists are there talking to people. Yes, the animals are great and the landscape is fabulous, but it’s [the scientists’] event. It’s their research and their work.”

Scientists will be on-site to meet with visitors and talk about what they do at the center. “We find ways [visitors] can participate with us,” Buff said, pointing out that at past festivals, some of the scientists have come up with fun ways to help explain their jobs. One year, National Zoo scientist Jack Frazier had an activity where children were “excluded” as they got to crawl through a turtle excluder device to understand how the contraption that allows sea turtles to escape a fisherman’s net works.

“It’s my hope that kids … will remember meeting Jack Frazier and study zoology,” Buff said.

The Smithsonian acquired the land in Front Royal in 1974, but before that it had been owned by the Army, serving as a remount depot to supply horses and mules for the military, and during World War II the land was a K-9 training facility and housed prisoners of war. Later, in 1948, Congress passed legislation giving the Department of Agriculture the land, which was turned into a beef cattle research station. In the early ’70s, Theodore Reed, director of the National Zoo, was looking for land for a captive breeding facility and when he heard the USDA was closing down its research station, he got the property on behalf of the Smithsonian. [IMGCAP(2)]

“Even back then, this place was about animal science,” Buff said after recounting the CRC’s history. She said about one-third of the land is for animal programs (such as reproductive sciences and husbandry) and the remaining two-thirds is more about long-term ecological research.

“The CRC history is a big draw to our community,” Buff said. “People who grew up here or remember when they’d picnic in the beef cattle years — Race Track Hill was a destination. People are interested in the CRC and what we do here. It’s important that we get families and school kids here.”

The CRC helps the National Zoo in Northwest D.C. a lot in terms of animal research, and even the hay and alfalfa used to feed animals at Rock Creek Park and at the CRC is grown on the Front Royal property, Buff said. Also, the research that occurs at the CRC helps zoos around the world, and Buff said zoos cooperate with the CRC in many ways, such as with breeding programs.

Some of the rare and endangered species at the CRC include red pandas, maned wolves (apparently a “big hit” at the event, according to Buff), clouded leopards, Mongolian wild horses, Bali mynahs, Eld’s deer and scimitar-horned oryx, and many of the animals will be on view at the festival. Tours of the crane yards, veterinary hospital, research laboratories and breeding facilities will be given, and there also will be hayrides, live music, and food and drink available for purchase. Merchandise will be available, too, including Mongolian wild horse stuffed animals, Buff said.

Admission to the festival is granted by a $25 car pass, which is good for up to six people. Parking passes are available online or at the Front Royal-Warren County Visitor Center, and those at the CRC recommend purchasing the passes in advance. Many in the area take advantage of what the festival has to offer — last year, Buff said the CRC parked 800 cars on Sunday.

Making the trip to Front Royal is worth it for the festival and the chance to learn about the CRC, but Buff said it’s also a great time of year to be out at the center’s property, which offers amazing views of the Shenandoah Valley and the Blue Ridge Mountains. “It’s the beginning of October, the leaves are turning and the humidity has dropped,” she said.

The Autumn Conservation Festival will run, rain or shine, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Oct. 6 and 7.

“We’re not like a normal zoo,” Buff said about the CRC. “We’re completely different. I think … there’s a lot of potential here.”

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