Monday, 29 August 2011

National Zoo's Reptile Discovery Center adds endangered species (Via Herp Digest)

National Zoo's Reptile Discovery Center adds endangered species, emphasizes preservation
By Amanda Long, Published: August 18, Washington Post,

When you realize your home's look hasn't evolved much since its post-college phase, you put the Ikea bookshelves on Craigslist, start searching for a contractor who won't drive you crazy, scrutinize endless tile samples and stop considering Pottery Barn too public a venue to fight with your spouse. Then you prepare the neighbors and pay the county.

When you realize your reptile house is "stuck in the '80s," as National Zoo biologist Matt Evans did last year, you put your aging non-endangered snakes, turtles and lizards on the Association of Zoos and Aquariums' "status list" (a Freecycle of sorts for curators), work the phones to find a new home for unwanted animals, and start cashing in favors from former colleagues whose zoos have just the gecko you gotta have. Then you prepare the neighbors: Tell the plant people you need new native plants, the commissary you need new meat, and the vet you need quarantine space. And you cross your fingers and hope no red tape keeps the Smithsonian's Reptile Discovery Center from getting fresh, new cold blood.
Kinda makes your remodeling look less beastly.

When Dennis Kelly left his post at Zoo Atlanta to take over the National Zoo last year, he made species preservation his top priority. He enlisted Evans and Jim Murphy, a research associate, to do a massive remodeling of its "geriatric" inventory, while revamping its mission: more research, more species protection and more endangered animals.

The Smithsonian's zoo wasn't, as Evans says, "doing much in the way of science" or leading the country in species preservation, so the 71-year-old Murphy, a giant in herpetology circles, was called out of semi-retirement to head up the Reptile Discovery Center.

"Firing up the herpetologists is Jim's forte," said David Chiszar, an animal behaviorist and snake specialist at the University of Colorado at Boulder. In terms of research and journal contributions, Chiszar says, "Murphy is probably in the top five across all zoos and across all the years we have had zoos in the U.S."

It was the conservation aspect that lured Murphy out of semi-retirement: "I am convinced that we are in the midst of the sixth mass extinction event of animals and plants, caused by humans," he says. The fifth cleared the planet of dinosaurs. "I know hundreds of biologists, and not one is optimistic. It is incumbent upon me to alert others to this looming catastrophe."

With every new endangered Malagasy leaf-tailed gecko now calling Woodley Park home, Evans and Murphy are shifting the Reptile Discovery Center from a static, but crowd-pleasing, collection that hadn't turned over in decades to one that has 13 new species.

To make room for the 33 and counting newcomers, the reptile center team "deaccessioned" 57 animals. Deaccessioning is the right-sizing of the museum world. One day, you're hanging out with the other leopard geckos munching on mealworms, the next you're at the Bramble Park Zoo in South Dakota.

But think about it: It is not that easy to find a good home for a leopard gecko.

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