- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 26, 2000

Red pandas, clouded leopards and maned wolves are a few of the rare, exotic animals residing at the National Zoo's Conservation and Research Center in Front Royal, Va.

On Oct. 7 and 8, the fourth annual Autumn Conservation Festival allows a chance to glimpse these endangered animals and learn about the center. On Oct. 7, the CRC is open to Friends of the National Zoo (FONZ) Safari Club members and on Oct. 8 to the public.

"We really want to encourage D.C. people to join the FONZ Safari Club and come for free," says Jennifer Buff, education program manager. "Last year, on the community day, we had 1,500 people; on the FONZ day, we had about 400 to 500 people."

FONZ membership is $47 for a family and $37 for an individual. There is an additional $25 fee to join the CRC Safari Club.

"By becoming a member of the CRC Safari Club, you get a chance to have special behind-the-scenes involvement on the tour and through special workshops and field trips," says Alex Hawes, communications manager for FONZ. "Safari Club membership offers a firsthand look at the exciting and difficult field of conservation biology."

Mr. Hawes says Safari Club members get a quarterly newsletter and invitations to special events. In addition, there are opportunities to work on conservation projects as a volunteer.

The festival will include behind-the-scenes tours of the CRC veterinary hospital and research laboratories as well as keeper-guided tours of animal-breeding facilities for other endangered species. Truck tours to the far pastures will offer opportunities for viewing herds of Mongolian wild horses, Asian deer, three species of African antelope sable, Arabian oryx and scimitar-horned oryx.

Other endangered animals that are likely to be encountered include the North American black-footed ferret, tree kangaroos from Papua New Guinea, a variety of Pacific Island birds and three species of rare cranes Manchurian white-naped, red-crowned and Florida sandhill.

In addition to the animals, special exhibits will highlight the center's conservation projects around the world.

Children will revel in the interactive science exhibits. A geographic information system (GIS) computer mapping game will show the diversity of local forests and the variety of animals that call them home.

Other exhibits feature migratory birds, as well as rare and endangered electric fish. A wildlife art show and live music will add to the fun. Food vendors will be on the grounds, or bring a picnic and take in the fresh air and mountain views from Racetrack Hill.

The CRC is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. It was 1975 when S. Dillon Ripley, then secretary of the Smithsonian, secured the 3,200 acres from the Department of Agriculture when it closed its beef cattle station.

"Mr. Ripley did a lot of hunting and fishing. One Sunday, he came out and dropped by to see his friend, the director, who was drawing up papers to turn the land back to [the General Services Administration]. The secretary asked that it not be turned in until he went back and asked for the land," Ms. Buff says.

Thus began the zoo's foray into the research and conservation of endangered species. The center is not a breeding facility for animals to be shown at the National Zoo.

"The CRC breeds animals in the interest of research for species survival programs," says Dr. Steve Monfort, research veterinarian.

One example of this is the Mongolian wild horse, which has never been domesticated and was extinct in the wild. The CRC is seeking to participate in a reintroduction program spearheaded by European conservation organizations, which have reintroduced two herds of these horses into Mongolia.

Clouded leopards from Southeast Asian jungles are very rare and difficult to breed in captivity because of aggression by the males. CRC scientists are seeking to develop breeding protocols, including the use of artificial insemination, to help these animals in captivity.

"In our animal programs, we have two things maintaining the captive population and maintaining genetic diversity," Dr. Monfort says. The CRC would like to be able to assist zoos with the management of their species by using technology, such as frozen sperm and artificial insemination.

The CRC links all the disciplines together and has developed training programs. "Every discipline has a cross-training program nutrition, sperm freezing, ecosystem management and training in the host country. We are probably better known internationally than we are in our own back yard," Ms. Buff says.

However, the CRC is making efforts to reach out to the local community. It started an education initiative with local schools, which evolved into the conservation festival. Another initiative is the FONZ summer camp, during which youngsters ages 9 to 12 have an opportunity to work with scientists and with the research labs.

"It's one of the best camps in the country," Ms. Buff says. "It has received the highest possible rating on the American Camping Association's accredited scores."

This is a far cry from the origin of the land, which was a remount station during World Wars I and II. Horses and mules were bred there and then loaded onto trains to be sent around the country for use in the cavalry.

Racetrack Hill is the final resting place of Octagon and Navarre, both Kentucky Derby winners, who served at stud through the generosity of Arthur Belmont Jr. of Belmont Stakes fame.

Gen. John J. ("Blackjack") Pershing's two horses Jeff and Kidron lived out their final days here and are buried on Racetrack Hill. Don't look for the tombstone; the Army removed it when the remount operation closed in World War II.

During that war, German prisoners of war were confined here, and prized Lipizzaner stallions were captured and brought back here for auction, Ms. Buff says.

Bringing to life the days when the facility was a remount station, cavalry re-enactors will be on Racetrack Hill during the festival.

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