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Summer 2004 Vol. 4 No. 2

Table of Contents

Zooming In on the Zoo

Studying the National Zoo
Under the Media's Microscope

Rokan, a male Sumatran tiger at the National Zoo, Washington, D.C., photo by Jessie Cohen, ©Smithsonian Institution

In Washington, it is usually politicians, not veterinarians, who are the subject of congressional inquiries and stories by investigative journalists. But after a series of untimely animal deaths at the National Zoo, Congress and the local media began questioning whether zoo operations were endangering the animal collection.

The first deaths to draw outside scrutiny were a pair of red pandas that died after consuming rat poison that had been buried in their enclosure -- a violation of the zoo's own protocol. Soon it was reported that other large animals had perished under unusual circumstances, including a zebra that died from hypothermia brought on by malnutrition. This prompted the Committee on House Administration, which oversees the Smithsonian Institution -- of which the zoo is part -- to hold hearings. Declaring that "the growing cloud over this important institution [the zoo] must be lifted," the committee's chairman, Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio), asked the National Research Council to investigate.

Meanwhile, given that the zoo attracts more than 3 million visitors annually, it was no surprise that the controversial animal deaths continued to captivate the public and media. Story after story appeared on front pages and on television, filled with the type of intrigue usually accompanying a political scandal -- missing and altered records, accusations of a cover-up, who knew what and when, and calls for resignation. In addition, the American Zoo and Aquarium Association (AZA) delayed renewing the zoo's accreditation. Word that a fox from the surrounding Rock Creek Park had burrowed its way under a cage and killed a bald eagle also helped to keep the zoo's problems in the news. When the Research Council committee charged with studying zoo operations met for the first time, a dozen television cameras were in the room, including two from C-SPAN, which broadcast the daylong proceedings live.

A February news conference attracted just as many cameras when the committee released the findings of an interim report that described several shortcomings in animal care and management at the zoo. Preventive care, such as regular vaccinations, annual exams, and tests for infectious disease, was lacking, according to the committee. Oversight of animal nutrition also was inadequate. Not only had miscommunication among keepers, nutritionists, and veterinarians contributed to the death of the zebra, diets fed to many primate species were inconsistent with established guidelines. Record keeping, pest control, and procedures for ensuring the welfare of animals used in research all required immediate attention as well, the committee said. Incomplete records, in fact, along with differing accounts from zoo personnel, prevented the committee from drawing more conclusions about whether certain animals' deaths were linked to inadequate care or management.

The National Zoo’s giant pandas, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, photo by Jessie Cohen, ©Smithsonian Institution

"Some of the problems we found are unique to the National Zoo, but many are common to other zoos as well," committee chair R. Michael Roberts from the University of Missouri told the packed news conference. The media attention only grew, however, particularly after the zoo's director announced her resignation less than two hours after the committee released its report. Roberts said his committee was not asked to comment on the director's position, but that he hoped the final report would help the zoo "look forward" during this period of transition. The interim report did note some positive steps already being made at the zoo. A strategic plan was being developed, for example, and a new pest-management committee had been established. And less than a month after the committee's interim report was issued, the AZA, citing improvements in areas such as facility maintenance and the hiring of new curators and veterinarians, granted the zoo a full five-year accreditation.   -- Bill Kearney

Animal Care and Management at the National Zoo: Interim Report. Committee on a Review of the Smithsonian Institution's National Zoological Park, Board on Agriculture and Natural Resources and Institute for Laboratory Animal Research, Division on Earth and Life Studies (2004, 128 pp.; ISBN 0-309-09178-0; available from the National Academies Press, tel. 1-800-624-6242; $29.25 plus $4.50 shipping for single copies).

The committee was chaired by R. Michael Roberts, Curator's Professor of Animal Sciences, Biochemistry, and Veterinary Pathology, University of Missouri, Columbia. The study was funded by the Smithsonian Institution.

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Copyright 2005 by the National Academy of Sciences