The National Zoological Park's Conservation and Research Center was established in 1975 on 3,100 acres at a former US Army Cavalry Remount Station in Front Royal, Virginia, to encourage development of all aspects of animal sciences. Renamed the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in 2010, the institute’s mission is the conservation of biodiversity through scientific research, professional training, and environmental education. Dr. Theodore H. Reed, director of the National Zoo, had been searching over a decade for a captive breeding facility where animals could be studied and bred without the stress of public viewing, when he heard of the possibility of obtaining the old Remount Station property. Other locations were examined, including La Plata, Maryland; Virginia's Great Dismal Swamp; and a nine hundred acre portion of Camp A. P. Hill in Virginia; but none could compare with the potential and existing on-site facilities offered by the old remount depot.
The US Army obtained options on forty-two 100-acre farms in the vicinity of Front Royal in 1909 to establish four major remount depots to supply horses and mules for military operations. The farms, together with intervening acreage, were later purchased, and by 1911 the government owned a tract of 4,200 acres. A fenced corridor communicated directly with the railhead in Front Royal, where large numbers of animals were delivered to freight cars for overseas duty during World War I and II. There is a reminder of that bygone era at the Horse Cemetery, where tombstones mark the graves of some of the more noteworthy steeds and Kentucky Derby winners, as well as a number of dogs. When the Smithsonian acquired the property, one old Army pensioner remained—a mule named Old Tom, who is buried in an unmarked grave on Race Track Hill. During the cavalry's occupancy, nearly all of the woodlands on the property were converted to pasture at one time or another.
A second building boom occurred during World War II, when the center served as a K-9 training facility and housed six hundred German and Italian prisoners of war. Several temporary structures were constructed in the vicinity of the alfalfa fields, but today only the foundations remain. Most of the rock piles scattered about the property date from this period. After World War II, the place of cavalry in modern warfare was questioned, and the US Congress passed legislation in 1948 transferring the land assets of the Remount Service to the US Department of Agriculture. The remount depot became the Beef Cattle Research Station, and fields that once had been home to thousands of cavalry mounts were occupied by Angus, Hereford, and Shorthorn cattle. The research station, in conjunction with Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, raised cattle under a variety of experimental conditions to improve meat production of the various breeds. In addition, the US Department of State used a portion of the station's facilities as an emergency relocation site with a communications station for the secretary of state and seven hundred State Department employees. In the winter of 1973, the Department of Agriculture decided to close down the research station's operations.
The property was occupied by the Smithsonian in 1974, and title to the land was received in 1975. The facility was named the Conservation and Research Center, and was staffed with a dozen employees from various National Zoo departments as well as a handful of former Cavalry Remount Station and Beef Cattle Research Station employees. In 2010, the center was renamed the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute.
Institute research has always covered a broad array of subjects including: ethology, conservation biology, ecology and biodiversity monitoring, reproductive biology and animal health, genetic diversity and systematics, and nutrition and geographic information systems. Staff are involved in groundbreaking research pertaining to the conservation of endangered species and ecosystems locally, nationally, and around the world. The institute breeds and houses a wide range of endangered species. Institute staff have focused on such endangered species as the last living family of black-footed ferrets, the Guam rail, cranes, clouded leopards, Przewalski's wild horses, and Matschie’s tree kangaroos.
The institute also trains wildlife biologists from developing countries and conducts international research projects, including a recent one on the elephants of Southeast Asia led by institute director Christian Wemmer. Today, the goal of their research programs is to develop long-term, collaborative conservation initiatives that utilize a diverse array of scientific, cultural, and political tools to understand and protect species and their ecosystems.
- Chronology of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute
- Bibliography of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute
- Images of the Conservation Biology Institute
- Conservation Biology Institute Records from the Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Historic Picture Highlights of the National Zoological Park
- Additional Records and Collections of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute Across the Smithsonian