National Zoo Animal Care Staff Training Still Inadequate

By J.R. Pegg

WASHINGTON, DC, January 20, 2005 (ENS) – Animal care and management at the National Zoo are improving, but more needs to be done to tackle longstanding systemic problems at the zoo, the National Research Council said Wednesday.

Deficiencies in areas of strategic planning, animal staff training and workplace culture must still be addressed, according to the committee’s final report, if the zoo is to fully rebound from a decade of decline.

"Many solid steps have been taken, but the turnaround if far from complete," said committee chair Dr. R. Michael Roberts, a veterinary pathologist at the University of Missouri.

Roberts said the most pressing of the report’s recommendations is the "establishment of rigorous animal care staff training and a climate of accountability and personal responsibility."

"For the most part, the current cadre of animal care staff at the zoo had no prior experience in the care of zoo animals prior to becoming either a volunteer or employee of the zoo," Roberts told reporters.


National Zoo staffer bathes a young elephant at the zoo. (Photo by Jessie Cohen courtesy National Zoo)
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 home to more than 2,600 animals and draws more than two million visitors a year. The zoo has a staff of about 350 full-time, part-time, and seasonal employees, and more than 1,500 volunteers.

Concern about the fate of the red pandas – and subsequent media reports that raised questions about a number of other animal deaths at the zoo – prompted Congress in March 2003 to ask the council to conduct a yearlong review of the zoo and its Conservation and Research Center (CRC) in Front Royal, Virginia.

The 15 member panel’s interim report, released last February, detailed problems at all levels of the zoo and in particular criticized animal care and management, recordkeeping and pest control.

The findings prompted National Zoo Director Lucy Spelman to resign her post.

The final report says the zoo is making "good faith efforts to correct those problems."

For example, veterinary staff have eliminated the preventive care backlog and established a detailed monthly schedule for animal care.

The zoo has established a standardized, electronic recordkeeping system for zookeepers and implemented improved methods for tracking staff performance.


A young western lowland gorilla eats in the National Zoo's outdoor gorilla yard. (Photo courtesy National Zoo)
The final report urged the zoo to move more aggressively on pest control and maintenance, but Roberts said the committee believed that "recommendations from interim report have been taken very seriously."

"Never have we suggested there has been a lack of dedication or caring for the animals at the zoo," Roberts said.

But the zoo’s animal care staff still needs basic training, according to the committee, and the zoo must improve internal communication and further clarify the roles and responsibilities of staff members.

The panel said training for animal care staff has been informal, vague and inconsistent – even though concerns about staff training have been raised repeatedly by external reviews of the zoo since 1992.

"The current state of training and professional development at the zoo does not foster the expectation that staff will assume responsibility to keep abreast of innovations and further their education and development in their respective fields," Roberts said.

A review of 48 large animal deaths since 1999 illustrated concerns about staff training, recordkeeping and communication at the zoo and the CRC.

The committee found gaps in recordkeeping in 17 of these cases – "making it difficult … to form conclusions in some instances."

"Most of those lapses in record were for only a very small part of the history of the animal," said committee member Dr. Charles Capen, a veterinary biosciences professor at Ohio State University.

Evidence of inadequate care was found in a five cases, including the red panda deaths, as well as the death of macaque and two rare zebras.

"A lack of open communication and collaboration among [zoo staff] was evident in almost every case of inadequate animal care," the report found.


National Zoo staffer attempts to communicate with a lemur at the zoo. (Photo courtesy Ryan Hebert)
Individual departments of the zoo seldom worked together, disrupting the system of checks and balances and allowing substandard care to occur, he committee said.

But in the "majority of cases the animals received appropriate care throughout their lifetimes," Roberts told reporters. "Many of the deaths involve geriatric animals with multiple problems … and [our findings] suggest the publicized animal deaths were not indicative of wider problems with animal care at the zoo."

The committee praised the vision of the zoo’s strategic plan, which was developed in May in response to the interim report, but said it lacks vital details on how the zoo intends to meet implement that vision.

The panel called on the zoo to develop a more detailed, comprehensive strategy that incorporates operational plans to meet short term goals and links plans to upgrade facilities with those to acquire animals.

The strategic plan needs to be "a living document that can change and develop," said Roberts, who praised the zoo’s efforts to improve.

David Evans, undersecretary for science at the Smithsonian, called the final report fair and accurate.

"We are gratified that the report confirms what we have been saying all along - animals at the National Zoo are well cared for," said Evans, who pledged the zoo’s commitment to carrying out the recommendations of the report.

Evans has been serving as interim director of the National Zoo since Spelman finished her tenure at the zoo last month.

The search for a permanent director is ongoing, zoo officials said.