FRONT ROYAL, Va. — A fresh carpet of green alfalfa spreads like a soft angora blanket across the rolling foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Nearby, tranquil pastures are brushed by soft autumnal breezes.
In this idyllic expanse, only an hour and a half from the congested metropolitan landscape of the nation's capital, roam not only the deer and the antelope but also such exotic creatures as scimitar-horned oryxes, Persian onagers and Przewalski's horses.
Operated by the Conservation and Research Center of the National Zoological Park, this is one of only a handful of special breeding farms in the country for rare and endangered species operated by zoos. And this modern-day Noah's Ark--complete with computer records, special diet regimens and closed-circuit television monitors--may be the only hope of survival for some of these unique animals.
The Front Royal center, along with facilities operated by the Zoological Society of San Diego and one on St. Catherines Island off the coast of Georgia owned by the New York Zoological Park, are in the forefront of this movement. Dr. Michael Robinson, the National Zoo's director, likens the efforts to preserving art treasures. "We are saving the masterpieces," he said.
Guarantors of a Future
Indeed, while the zoos of yesterday were mainly showcases, many today find themselves increasingly taking on a vital new role: learning enough to guarantee a future for some fragile species whose survival has been threatened by man's intrusion, vanishing habitats and the vicissitudes of nature.
Traditionally, zoos have purchased wild animals, reptiles and birds when they wanted them. Ample supplies eliminated the incentive to keep genealogical records or to study breeding habits, especially in captivity. But now, with wild species decreasing in number, increased curbs on trafficking in wild animals and high purchase prices, zoos routinely breed their animals.
"We've ceased to be consumers and we've become producers," Robinson said of his center, where a total of 743 hoofed animals, small mammals and birds representing 41 species live on 3,150 acres of picturesque hillsides.
At the National Zoo--which is part of the Smithsonian Institution--83% of the mammals are zoo-bred, along with 70% of the birds and 52% of the amphibians and reptiles.
As those who work in this relatively young science have learned, understanding the social behavior and breeding traits of even a few species is a complicated undertaking.
"There is so much we don't know about animals," said Dr. Theodore Reed, who was Robinson's predecessor for 30 years and headed the National Zoo when its rural center was established more than a decade ago. "The farm becomes more and more important," Reed said, so that zoos will not become the only homes for some species.
"Thirty years from now, if we don't continue these programs, we won't have anything but some guinea pigs, dogs and cats and a few pigeons," he added.
And, as zoos begin devoting more scientific study to the future of endangered species, exotic animals are not the only focus of their breeding efforts. A key goal of the Front Royal center is to raise a large enough number of the varying species studied here to ensure genetic diversity and reduce the problems of inbreeding.
"Fifteen years ago, zoos didn't even keep genealogy records. Now, it's all computerized," Reed said. "Today," he added, "you have arranged marriages."
To accomplish this for animals in captivity, proper space and tranquility are needed to create an unstressful environment. The National Zoo found the rolling Virginia countryside, where the quiet fields are dotted with nesting boxes for bluebirds, to be an ideal setting. The facility is closed to the public to minimize disturbances to the animals but there are occasional unexpected visitors like the surprised hang glider pilot who landed in a field of camels.
Nestled among the hills is a cluster of cream-colored buildings with red roofs, homes for the caretakers; a new solar-heated facility for small mammals and birds; a new veterinary hospital, and even a garage for an old Army truck converted into a fire engine.
Working here is a lesson in time and patience. At the entrance to one building, Scott Derrickson, curator of birds for the center and the zoo, unlocks a door and reminds visitors to dip the soles of their shoes into a plastic tub of disinfectant. Inside, it is as quiet as a hospital corridor, except for an occasional rustle or twitter from two birds: the Guam rail and kingfisher.
The disappearance of all but a few dozen of these birds from Guam has been recently traced to a brown tree snake that appeared on Guam in the 1940s.
The center, in cooperation with several other zoos, is hoping to breed the birds successfully and perhaps even return some of them to an island near Guam without these snakes.
For reasons such as this, births here are a special joy. In one paddock a small husky foal is protected by several mares as a friendly herd of Przewalski's horses approaches visitors for an apple. The foal is the first born and bred here.
The Przewalski's horses, like the scimitar-horned oryx--some of which could double as unicorns--are lucky. They are among the 40 species selected to participate in the 4-year-old "species survival program" of the American Assn. of Zoological Parks and Aquariums.
"We hold in trust for future generations not yet born," Reed said. "We are thinking not of the kids coming today, but the kids coming 30 years from now."