US National Zoo Still Struggling, Report Finds
WASHINGTON The National Zoo in Washington, plagued by a string of animal deaths including red pandas poisoned by rat bait, is improving but staff still needs basic animal care training, the National Research Council said Wednesday.
The report was the last by the council, part of the National Academy of Sciences, requested last year by Congress to assess the institution following a series of high-profile animal deaths at the nation's flagship zoo.
Despite publicity surrounding the deaths of the pandas, a zebra killed though neglect and a lion that died after a minor operation, most of the animals are getting proper care, the report concluded.
The highly publicized deaths were blamed on bad management and zoo director Lucy Spelman announced her resignation last February, hours after the National Research Council's interim report faulting the park's handling of animals.
In this latest report, the council said staff needed to learn how to communicate better and to take responsibility. The council, an independent organization that advises the federal government on scientific issues, also said staff needed basic training in animal nutrition.
One Grevy's zebra died of starvation and hypothermia in February 2000, because trainers did not give it enough hay to eat and because no one reported problems with heat lamps, the report said.
The zoo now plans to hire a clinical nutritionist, the report said.
"Many solid first steps have been taken, but the turnaround is far from complete," said R. Michael Roberts, a professor of animal sciences, at the University of Missouri, who chaired the committee.
The zoo said it was continuing to work on improvements and would continue to report to Congress. The zoo is part of the nonprofit Smithsonian Institution, overseen by Congress, and got $28.4 million in federal funding in 2003.
With its designation as National Zoo and its location in downtown Washington, it comes under extra scrutiny.
Spelman's job of director has been open since Dec. 31 and Smithsonian Institution Undersecretary of Science David Evans is acting as director and leading the search for a replacement, a spokeswoman said.
"It's a big job and we not only need someone that is credible in zoology, biology and conservation, but also a good communicator," spokeswoman Peper Long said. "They need to be able to talk the public."
The report said staff clearly cared about the animals but it added: "It is apparent to the committee that the zoo's deterioration evident in the fall of 2003 was the result of long-standing, systemic problems at the highest levels of the zoo's operations."
It said, however, that after studying 48 animal deaths since 1999, it had found that "publicized deaths there were not indicative of wider, undiscovered problems with animal care."
The report did not examine the zoo's scientific program but praised it. The zoo has recently helped breed a litter of rare clouded leopards in Thailand and four endangered cheetah cubs were born in Washington in November although their father died soon afterward.