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Visitors furious over National Zoo's decision to close invertebrate exhibit

Friday - 6/20/2014, 11:07am  ET

Invertebrate exhibit (National Zoo)
A common cuttlefish is one of the dozens of species housed in the invertebrate exhibit, which needs an estimated $5 million in improvements. The National Zoo announced Monday that June 21 would be the last day the exhibit will be open to the public. (Mehgan Murphy/Smithsonian's National Zoo)

WASHINGTON -- National Zoo visitors and volunteers are furious after the zoo announced it would close its invertebrate exhibit beginning Sunday.

A collection of blue crabs, sea anemone, butterflies and other creatures will need to find new homes and fans of the exhibit expressed outrage on the zoo's Facebook page saying the decision was "shocking," "devastating," "horrible," and "misguided."

Zoo officials decided to close the exhibit because of budgetary pressures. The building requires as much as $5 million in upgrades to equipment and life-support systems among other needed improvements, the zoo said in a statement.

Terri Jacobsen, a Bethesda resident, created a Change.org petition to convince the zoo to keep the exhibit open.

"It seems like they're not listening much to what the public wants," Jacobsen says. "They feel like they're free to make whatever decisions they need to make without letting people know or asking people's opinion or doing anything else that you think you're supposed to do when you're a federally funded group."

After the public outcry online, the zoo released a second statement saying they will bring the invertebrates back through a 20-year plan, which includes a new Hall of Biodiversity, but they cannot raise enough money to keep the exhibit until then.

The statement reads:

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.

But Jacobsen isn't convinced.

"Given all the money that the zoo has put into other exhibits lately, we didn't believe the financial concern. We thought that could be taken care of," Jacobsen says.

The National Zoo's $100 million renovation included the elephant exhibit and the Asia Trail, which is home to sloth bears, clouded leopards, fishing cats, Asian small-clawed otters, red pandas, Japanese giant salamander and giant pandas.

Jacobsen says if the zoo can raise that much money for those animals, "maybe [it] can raise $5-$10 million for what is about 97 percent of the world's species," she says.

Zoo Director Dennis Kelly called it a difficult decision that does not detract from the importance of the exhibit.

"The exhibit has been a hidden gem, cared for by passionate and expert staff," Kelly says, adding it was a necessary decision for the financial and operational health of the organization.

Jacobsen intends to forward the petition to the Smithsonian on Friday.

"With the closing of the National Aquarium, maybe the zoo should be in the business in keeping the only live invertebrate exhibit open for people who live in D.C.," she says. "You can't walk into that exhibit without being touched by someone who tells you something that you didn't know beforehand."

The exhibit's budget will be redirected to other programs within the zoo. The zoo confirmed that the invertebrate exhibit volunteers were offered opportunities to volunteer in other exhibits.

Some of the creatures housed there could also be relocated within the zoo. However, others will find new homes at other accredited zoos.

"The zoo is not the only place where people can see live invertebrates in D.C. The Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History has invertebrates living at the O. Orkin Insect Zoo and the Sant Ocean Hall," wrote zoo spokesman, Devin Murphy, in an email.

While the zoo is looking for new homes for the invertebrates, all of the animals will continue to live in the Invertebrate Exhibit.

"For permanent new homes, we're looking at placing animals at other AZA-accredited facilities, or some may permanently find new homes within the zoo. It's too soon to say where each animal will permanently live," Murphy said in an email.

The zoo will have more information about the invertebrates' permanent homes in the coming weeks and months, Murphy adds.

About 99 percent of all species are invertebrates. These small aquatic or land-based creatures do not have backbones and include bumblebees, clams and corals.

Saturday will be zoo visitors' last chance to see the creatures that reside within the exhibit, which first opened in 1987.

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