Experts Blast National Zoo Management, Director Resigns

By J.R. Pegg

February 26, 2004 (ENS) - National Zoo Director Lucy Spelman resigned Wednesday after a federal panel of experts released an interim report detailing a host of management and administrative shortcomings that continue to threaten the wellbeing of the animals at the zoo.

The committee had not called for her resignation, but Spelman told reporters she had become "a lightning rod for too much attention."

The National Zoo has been under intense scrutiny since January 2003, when two endangered red pandas died from eating rat poison buried by pest controllers in their yard.

The federally funded zoo, located in the heart of Washington DC, is a major tourist attraction, drawing more than two million visitors a year. Created by Congress in 1889, the zoo has some 2,700 individuals of 435 different species.

After a hearing in March 2003, the House Administration Committee ordered the National Academies of Science to form a committee of experts and investigate animal care and management at the zoo. Spelman

National Zoo Director Lucy Spelman has faced the brunt of cricitism about animal care at the National Zoo. (Photo courtesy Environmental Investigation Agency)
That committee's interim report, released Wednesday, is a scathing indictment of the zoo and details four primary areas of weakness: animal care and management, record keeping, pest management, and strategic planning.

"There are problems at all levels of the zoo," said committee chair Dr. R. Michael Roberts, a veterinary pathologist at the University of Missouri. "We believe there has been a slippage in standards and adherence to the zoo's own protocols."

"The charge of this committee was not to assign blame, but to help the zoo avoid similar incidents in the future," said Roberts, who declined to comment on Spelman.

"Some of the problems we identified are unique to the National Zoo, but many are common to other zoos as well," Roberts said.

The 15 member panel concluded that the decline in the state of the zoo and many of the deficiencies it reported "had accumulated over many years."

It did not blame staffing levels or funding even though many of the events that prompted the investigation have occurred since 2000, when there was a cut in staffing at the zoo.

The committee found many animals at the zoo are not receiving preventive care in accordance with recognized standards, including failures to administer vaccinations, annual exams, and tests for infectious diseases in a timely manner.

The panel honed in on the death of an African bush elephant, which had an active case of tuberculosis that went undiagnosed because zoo vets failed to conduct a common test for the disease.

"Although efforts have been made in the past year to improve implementation of the preventive medicine program, there is still a backlog of animals that have not received required examinations, vaccinations, or tests," Roberts said. "We recommend that the zoo's Department of Animal Health immediately develop a plan of action to clear this backlog." orangutan

An orangutan was misdiagnosed and euthanized at the National Zoo - it had a treatable condition, not cancer. (Photo courtesy Environmental Investigation Agency)
Inadequate oversight of animal nutrition at the zoo has contributed to animal deaths, the committee said, pointing to the premature death of a zebra caused by malnutrition, hypothermia and poor record keeping.

The committee determined that zoo staff repeatedly failed to comply with their own policies and procedures.

On several occasions, for example, zoo officials failed to properly complete a form authorizing euthanasia and quarantine procedures, and protocols designed to prevent the introduction of pathogens may have been violated when pets owned by staffers were brought onto zoo grounds for veterinary care.

Record keeping at the zoo is inconsistent, according to the panel, which cited one example where 16 weeks of records it requested were lost.

"Although the committee attempted to discern accurately the circumstances that led to many of the deaths, in some cases it was impossible either because the written record was incomplete or because there were conflicting accounts from zoo personnel," Roberts said.

The committee said pest control at the zoo is inadequate, which poses a threat not only to the animals but also potentially to zoo employees and visitors.

Rats and mice can still be seen crossing public walkways in daylight, the panel reported.

The lack of a strategic plan at the zoo is jeopardizing longterm goals, the committee added.

None of the key findings in the interim report "would be a threat today necessarily to any one individual animal," said committee member Dr. Stephen Zawistowski, senior vice president and senior advisor with the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

"It is the concern of the committee that the pervasive structural concerns and problems over time will continue to provide an unnecessary risk to the welfare of the animals," he told reporters. Roberts

Dr. R. Michael Roberts, chairman of the National Academies panel (Photo by Jonathan Waldman courtesy National Academies)
House Administration Committee Chairman Bob Ney, an Ohio Republican, and the ranking Democrat on the committee, John Larson of Connecticut, released a joint statement praising the report and calling on the zoo to implement many of the recommendations as soon as possible.

Commenting on Spelman's resignation, the Congressmen said "the problems at the zoo go beyond a single person."

"That being said, a change in management is a good step towards improving public confidence in the zoo and strengthening its operations," Ney and Larson said.

Spelman, whose resignation will become effective at the end of the year, took charge of the National Zoo in June 2000, having served the previous nine months as chief veterinarian.

The National Zoo director has been criticized by several former zoo officials, but Spelman defended her tenure and said she has "pushed, pulled and prodded to move the zoo forward."

"But now, to accelerate the rate of our progress, I have concluded that it is time for me to move on at the end of this year," Spelman said.

The committee expects to issue its final report this summer.

The final report will expand on topics raised in the interim report and address other issues related to animal care and management at the zoo, including a more detailed analysis of animal care and management at the zoo's Conservation and Research Center in Front Royal, Virginia.