Petition Launched to Keep the National Zoo’s Invertebrate House Open!

Photo: Jessie Cohen/Smithsonian’s National Zoo


“The Smithsonian Institution—the world’s largest museum and research complex—includes the National Zoological Park, 19 museums and galleries, and nine research facilities around the world. This Petition arises from a recent announcement made by the Smithsonian’s National Zoological Park.

On Monday, June 15, 2014, the National Zoo issued this press release, announcing the public had exactly six days to visit the Invertebrate House before it would close permanently.

Public reaction has not been favorable. One article reporting on the closing stated this:

“Having the nation’s zoo suddenly and with little public warning close a long-standing exhibit is unprecedented. Public comments on the Museum’s Facebook page are overwhelmingly shocked and negative, including some from volunteers that work at the Zoo.”

Wired’s Gwen Pearson spoke with Zoo Director Dennis Kelly, who said the Zoo plans to open a “Hall of Biodiversity” in 20 years (!) in which invertebrates may or may not be exhibited live. Meanwhile, no plans have even been made for the empty space occupied by the Invertebrate House, and Pearson reports “the building space the Invertebrate exhibit occupied will remain empty for the foreseeable future; the only plans are to clean the facility up.”

The Zoo recently completed a $52 million renovation of the Elephant House, and another $53 million project to house pandas. These investments promote two species, albeit highly visible and popular ones, while invertebrates make up 97% of all described species on earth, according to Pearson’s article.

Over two million people visit the National Zoo each year. Long-time visitors have fond and educational memories of their visits to the Invertebrate House, which exhibits cuttlefish, octopi, blue crabs, anemones, orb-weaving spiders, honeybees, leaf-cutter ants, and butterflies, among many other species.

The closure of the Invertebrate House leaves the National Zoo with no invertebrate exhibit. Yet, as numerous as they are on the planet, invertebrates remain so unstudied that major new discoveries are still being made in publicly-funded museum research programs. The very day the Smithsonian closure was announced, the American Natural History Museum in New York announced it had identified a new order of invertebrates in the phylum Cnidaria, which includes jellyfish, anemones, corals and their relatives. This new find, based on DNA analysis of invertebrate specimens collected near deep-ocean methane vents, is “equivalent to finding the first member of a group like primates or rodents,” said Estefanía Rodríguez, an assistant curator in the Museum’s Division of Invertebrate Zoology and the lead author of a new publication reporting the find.

Keeping the Invertebrate House open furthers the mission of the National Zoo to “provide engaging experiences with animals and create and share knowledge to save wildlife and habitats.” Watching octopi and cuttlefish explore their tanks is, to many visitors, equally as engaging as viewing elephants and pandas. Creating and sharing knowledge about invertebrates, the most numerous species of animals on Earth occupying habitats that encompass virtually our entire planet, is squarely within the National Zoo’s mission. The Invertebrate House can be improved, maintained and kept open at a fraction of the cost of the $100 million spent recently by the Smithsonian to exhibit elephants and pandas.

For these reasons, WE THE PEOPLE who are among the two million annual visitors to the National Zoo, have started and hereby support this petition to Keep the National Zoo’s Invertebrate House Open!”

18 Comment

  • I don’t know if they have the backbone to work out the budget… I have a feeling involved that those behind this are cold blooded, somewhat callous, and spineless… >:P

  • AMEN! This was the best part of the zoo to me. Hated they got rid of the Hippo too. Without out this I would not care to go to the zoo, the inverts were the coolest display there, will sign it for sure.

    • AGREED! The hippo was my favorite, followed by the octopus (and pretty much any cephalopod). Clearly the Zoo is out to get me.

  • A few years back, I asked the Rhino keeper “Where did she go?’ Responded “She was sent down to a breeding facility in West Palm Beach.”

    I will never forget how jealous I was that day 🙂

  • Thank you for putting this up. I hope that the zoo sees how valued the invertebrate house is. It just breaks my heart to think about all the people who would not get to enjoy the peace and beauty of that simple little place. Maybe with a little warning and effort they could have crowd-funded a t least part of the needed costs- I know I would give to help keep it open. I receive the FONZ emails, also, and don’t recall seeing anything suggesting that the invertebrate house was in the red.

  • PDleftMtP

    The Zoo’s response is thoughtful:

    Thank you for expressing your appreciation for the National Zoo’s Invertebrate Exhibit and your concern about its closing. We value your feedback and would like to clarify why we have made this very difficult decision.

    When the Invertebrate Exhibit opened in 1987, it was a groundbreaking venue. As time progressed, the cost of repairing and replacing dilapidated equipment combined with the fact that the exhibit is in the basement of a 1930s building presented real challenges. …By our calculations, completing all necessary infrastructure upgrades at this time would cost about $5 million. You probably read that our 20 Year Programmatic Master Plan includes a Hall of Biodiversity. The concept is preliminary but the vision calls for invertebrates to return in that new exhibit. It is a ways off. Keeping the Invertebrate Exhibit open for the next 15 years requires $1 million annually for operations and $5 million for the infrastructure bringing the total to $20 million.

    We have several other fundraising priorities which preclude us from launching a $20 million campaign for the invertebrates to stay in their existing space. We’re in the middle of a multi-million dollar campaign to renovate our 1920s Bird House to create the first-of-its kind exhibit about birds and migration. When the time comes, we will fundraise for the Hall of Biodiversity. Because we are committed to providing the best animal care possible, we feel strongly that moving these animals to other accredited zoos—ones that have new state-of-the-art facilities—is the right decision. It will give them the best opportunity to survive, thrive, and contribute to their species through breeding programs.

    We are committed to finding the best possible homes for all the animals and will not euthanize healthy invertebrates. While unlikely, there may be individual specimens where quality-of-life or untreatable disease concerns would lead to a recommendation for humane euthanasia. Once the exhibit closes to the public on Sunday, June 22 our staff will begin the process of relocating the animals, which will take a lot of time. The Zoo and our Invertebrate Exhibit staff remain committed to the welfare of these animals and will find suitable permanent homes for the collection.

    We hope you will visit our sister institution, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History to experience the O. Orkin Insect Zoo and the invertebrates and corals in the Sant Ocean Hall. Our website will continue to be a place to learn about invertebrates and their critical role in maintaining global biodiversity. Our leading research on coral reef conservation with modern fertility techniques continues.

    I understand your frustration with the timing of our announcement. As you may be aware, all five members of our invertebrates animal care team will stay at the Zoo and be reassigned to animal houses/areas where we have vacancies or need extra support. I seriously weighed the staff workload, quality of visitor experience combined with the needs of the public, and consideration of our team before making the final decision. This is an extremely hard decision for our zoo community but especially hard on the dedicated and passionate staff who work in the exhibit. We need to ensure that our keepers are well positioned to transition the animal collection and also to their new positions. The shorter timeline allows for the transition to start and I apologize if this has disappointed you. Our amazing volunteers will also be offered different opportunities around the Zoo.

    We’re committed to telling conservation stories in every corner of the Zoo with every animal species. Absolutely, we understand the vital role of invertebrates in our ecosystems and we will do our best to educate the public about invertebrates wherever possible. We hope that this and all exhibits (past, present and future) inspire the next generation of conservationists. I’m pleased that the Invertebrate Exhibit had such an impact on you and so many visitors.

    Thank you for sharing your passion for the Zoo.


    Dennis Kelly

    • It is and it isn’t thoughtful. It gives more information about the closure of this exhibit, which I understand. But it does not explain why this closing, clearly in the works for a long time, was announced to the public with less than a week’s notice. And it certainly does not address the concern that the zoo will now be neglecting the vast majority of all animals. Vague “maybe they’ll be included somehow in an exhibit that will open a generation from now” comments are not thoughtful.

    • tonyr

      I expect that the five staff constitute a big chunk of that $1M p.a. operational cost, and if they’re being re-deployed then they’re not saving those dollars either. Note that I’m not arguing for them to be laid off; just that the savings aren’t as large as they suggest.

  • I just sit back and think, the money needed to continue to operate this is probably less than the cost of one drone strike. Maybe if we focused our resources and efforts on educational pursuits, we would have a different reputation throughout the world and wouldn’t have to devote so many resources to some feigned sense of security.

    • Or even trade-offs within the zoo. They could renovate and operate this exhibit for 2 decades for less than half the cost of the new housing for 2 pandas (or 6 elephants). While I certainly appreciate that those animals are also important to the zoo’s mission and are very popular, it is not difficult to make a case that the invertebrates house has an even greater impact. They can show more diversity, and of a type that kids are not bombarded with in other aspects (movies, books, TV shows). And even better, people can interact directly with the inverts. And for many of the invert species, you can see them in more or less normal behaviors. Nothing you see at the zoo for any large vertebrate approximates in any way whatsoever what those animals are like in their natural environments.

      • I don’t see why there need to be trade offs. I have no doubt much of the money raised for the zoo is because of the large mammal exhibits. But we should be ashamed that they have to beg for scraps to even keep the thing running. Everyone bemoans when an exhibit closes, but that is drowned out by the incessant hatred by most Americans of funding anything good for society through taxation.

        • I totally agree that there shouldn’t be trade-offs, and I could not agree more that it’s an embarrassment how little this country spends on education and research (of all kinds, not just at the zoo). But even with the Zoo’s current budget, which without question creates real trade-offs and the need to make difficult decisions, the invert house was a relatively small expense and a lot of bang for the buck.

  • This was the final straw for my family. For the first time in 10 years, we will not renew our membership. This zoo’s priorities have so clearly gone the way of glitz and glam and corporate cash. I do not see the mission being served in the new plan.
    Oh, and the “hall of biodiversity” sounds super lame.

    • Please, when you get your renewal notice, make sure you return it along with an explanation about why you are not renewing.

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