The Emu, the Smew, and the Elephant Shrew All Live at Woodley Park-Zoo

The full name of the Metro station is Woodley Park-Zoo-Adams Morgan. (Cue jokes about seeing a zoo of animals during the day, and a zoo of people at night in Adams Morgan.)

At the Smithsonian’s National Zoological Park, visitors can see the smew (a kind of duck, in the bird exhibit), the short-eared elephant shrew (in the Small Mammal House), and an emu named Darwin, chilling in a habitat along Olmsted Walk along with a wallaby. What can no longer be seen, since it closed in June 2014, is the Invertebrate House.

Jellyfish in the now-closed Invertebrate House at the National Zoo

Jellyfish in the now-closed Invertebrate House at the National Zoo

The decision was announced a mere week before it was implemented, which added to the controversy seen in the public outcry. “Being told ‘it’s closing, see it in the next week or it’s gone & we’re not sure if anything’s coming back’ is very hard,” wrote one Facebook user on the Zoo’s Facebook page.

Letting go of part of the collection is rarely if ever an easy or uncontentious decision for a museum, but a zoo or other institution with a living, sentient collection has greater obligations to what happens to the creatures in its care. Deciding how much living space to allot to each animal is quite different from deciding how much wall space should be left empty between paintings.

The Zoo has genuine reasons for making changes over time to the exhibits, even closing a beloved hall. These reasons include:

  • the evolution of the moral considerations of zoos from our ancestors’ delight in seeing suited-up animals doing tricks in a cage to today’s ethic of education, conservation, and animal well-being
  • a shift toward showing how ecosystems work together rather than simply arranging animals in individual enclosures by phylum and class
  • budget considerations in a time when it is fashionable to protest government funding of just about anything, and private support of cultural institutions is down as most of the population makes do with less. (The Zoo explained the reasons behind the closure of the Invertebrate House in budgetary terms.)

Nevertheless, the loss of the invertebrate house was mourned and objected to by people who are fascinated by animals as diverse as octopuses, jellyfish, butterflies, and spiders. (Note: the Zoo has stated that the animals are going to other homes at the Zoo or at other zoos.) As the news reports on the exhibit’s closing have noted, 99% of the animals on the planet are invertebrates, and an understanding of the natural world is incomplete without learning about our numerous spineless cousins.

Besides the Zoo’s closure of the Invertebrate House, opportunities to see invertebrates have decreased in the DC area in recent years:

  • The National Aquarium’s DC location, whose collection included a Giant Pacific Octopus and sea anemones, had to close in 2013 due to renovation of the Chamber of Commerce building.
  • At the National Museum of Natural History, the Insect Zoo has grown smaller and exhibits a smaller array of creatures because of staffing cuts.
  • While the National Arboretum is primarily a place for learning about plants, it also teaches visitors about the insects whose lives are intertwined with flora, with installations such as a butterfly garden in the Youth Garden. Government funding cuts have led the Arboretum to decrease the hours it is open to the public almost by half.

While you can no longer worm your way into the Invertebrate House and soak up all the information like a sponge, the Zoo is planning a Hall of Biodiversity to open in 20 years, which will include invertebrates. Still, the closing of the Invertebrate House bugs and nettles a lot of people; it makes people feel crabby; it ticks people off. Some people were drawn to the exhibit like a moth to a flame, and now that the exhibit has closed, the decision has stirred up a hornet’s nest. With limited funds and a whole zoo of animals to consider, the Smithsonian will not be able to make all their visitors as happy as clams when tough choices arise.

Woodley Park-Zoo-Adams Morgan is on the Red Line.



About Laura

Paralegal with Master of Arts in Teaching in Museum Education, frequent museum visitor, based in Washington, DC. I care about what museums can do, both in terms of public offerings and internal practices, to make the world a better place. I blog about museum education ("informed"), the social work of museums ("humane"), and visitor experience ("citizenry").
This entry was posted in Articles and Books, National Zoological Park, Photos, WMATA and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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