At National Zoo, sequester could threaten exhibits but not animal care

The looming sequester will affect more than just politics in D.C. — it could impact one of the city’s favorite spots: The National Zoo. (Gabe Silverman/The Washington Post)
February 21, 2013

A lot of federal managers are fretting about the sequester, the deep budget cuts that could take effect next week. But very few of those managers manage man-eaters. Craig Saffoe does, and he knows that even if $85 billion in federal spending gets sliced this year, he has to keep his lions and tigers fed.

“We can’t just put these guys in a warehouse,” says Saffoe, standing on the safe side of a steel mesh wall at the National Zoo as Naba, a 300-pound lioness, rumbles like a restless volcano a few inches away. Two other massive females prowl and growl, muscles climbing over one another beneath their tawny coats. Naba and friends are not the kind of federal denizens you want suffering during major cutbacks.

“Our collection is a living collection,” says Saffoe, curator of the zoo’s big cats. “They need to be cared for every day, no matter what is happening above our heads.”

The National Zoo is always a standout during the budget battles that periodically rock Washington’s vast constellation of federal agencies. Although not the most vital to national security or human welfare, the zoo and the Smithsonian Institution to which it belongs are among the most visible and popular faces of federal Washington. More than 2 million visitors a year come to stare at the animals. When disruptions loom, whether because of snowstorms or power politics, zoo officials get an earful.

“People really want to be sure that the animals are going to be cared for,” zoo spokeswoman Pamela Baker-Masson says. “We hear it all the time when things like this are in the news — phone calls, social media. They really want to be reassured.”

Be reassured, zoo lovers. The cats will get their beef, the pandas their bamboo and the seals their herring, and all from familiar fingers. Most of the zoo’s 110 keepers, biologists and curators are rated as essential personnel in the event of government shutdowns and furloughs.

“We will never compromise on human safety, and we’ll never compromise animal welfare,” promises Dennis Kelly, director of the National Zoo, which has a $50 million budget and employs 450 people. “These people are incredibly devoted to these animals.”

Officials are scrambling to make sure the care keeps flowing, even as the sequester threatens to put the squeeze on other functions, including education, research and administration.

The Smithsonian is bracing for at least a 5 percent budget cut, which would amount to $40 million if the cuts weren’t restored before September, according to Linda St. Thomas, the institution’s chief spokeswoman. While the Pentagon has announced possible furloughs of up to 800,000 civilian defense workers, the Smithsonian plans to absorb the sequester mainly through freezing hiring, reducing training and delaying new equipment purchases and construction.

Some zoo projects, such as the planned acquisition of cheetahs for the research facility in Front Royal may be reconsidered, Kelly says. But with five curator jobs and numerous keeper slots vacant because of three years of frozen budgets, the sequester could nudge the zoo closer to what Kelly calls the doomsday scenario: closing one of its expensive major exhibits.

“We’re to the bone,” Kelly says. “I will never compromise on animal welfare or human safety, but we’re now at the point where we’d have to lop off a whole module.”

Which would go? The elephants, which cost up to $100,000 a year to keep? The beloved pandas, which attract thousands of visitors? Other major exhibits include the Reptile House, the great apes collection, big cats and the new American Trail.

“Please don’t make me chose among my children!” pleads Kelly, declining to speculate on which exhibit would be most at risk. “Those collections are big and stable and took years to build. If, God forbid, we have to shut down lions and tigers, it would take more than a year to find homes for them. And then if the money was found, it would probably take three years to start it up again.”

The zoo knows what it will face if it moves to shutter an exhibit. Two years ago, Kelly announced the end of the Kids’ Farm, a barn full of domestic livestock that didn’t add much to the zoo’s research on endangered species. The outcry was instant, and the exhibit remains open, thanks to a five-year grant from State Farm insurance company.

Curators and keepers are already adjusting to budget constraints. They are crossed-trained, like understudies in a musical, so that they can step in to care for unfamiliar animals in a staffing emergency. Actually, emergency has become the new normal. In addition to the African lions and Sumatran tigers, Saffoe has gained custody of Andean bears, prairie dogs, a giant anteater and, yes, the Kids’ Farm.

“I have a very ill anteater right now,” he said. “I have tigers that are breeding; I have tigers that are being shipped out; I have Andean bears with cubs fresh on the ground.”

The animals are getting their food and medicine, but Saffoe worries another round of cuts will mean even less time for anything else. He looks on as keeper Kristen Clark works with Naba through the mesh. Clark is getting the lioness used to maneuvers that are helpful for her frequent visits from the vet, such as sticking her tail out for a blood test or pressing her open mouth against the fence for a dental check.

Conditioned like this, the animals can get routine exams quickly and safely. But if there’s no time for training, they will need to be darted with tranquilizers more often, a traumatizing and dangerous procedure.

“We’re kind of getting down to the bare essentials,” Saffoe said. “I have tons of new data that we’ve gathered on the lion cubs, but it’s sitting on my hard disk because research has gone on the back burner.”

After his morning work with the big cats, Saffoe headed out through a light rain to tend to the other end of the food chain.

“For the last 19 years, I’ve worked with large, dangerous carnivores,” he said in the Kids’ Farm barn as he fed bits of kibble to a flop-eared Nubian goat. “Now I’m managing the animals that I usually feed out” to the cats.

At first, working with tame livestock was a challenge for Saffoe. After decades of the hyper-­security protocol of the lion house, where not even a finger goes into the enclosure where the teeth are, he had to learn to walk right into the pen with Rose, the polled Here­ford.

“What do you say, Rose?” he said as he greets the docile black-and-white heifer. “You can get kicked. You get butted. But yeah, there’s nothing more embarrassing than a carnivore keeper getting hurt by a goat.”

Karen Wille is one of those zoo devotees who keep a close eye on animal care. The Arlington County woman visits the zoo several times a month and has even traveled to China three times to visit Tai Shan, the panda who was born at the zoo in 2005 and lived there until 2010.

“It’s very frustrating to see what they have to go through,” Wille said of the keepers’ increasing need to do more with less.

She is confident that the animals will be well cared for even in the face of a sequester. But as a management consultant for federal contractors, Wille is less certain about what will happen to her. “Honestly, I’m worried about my own job,” she said.

Over at the American Trail exhibit, North American seals and sea lions and otters cavort near beavers and gray wolves and a bald eagle. It’s a massively complex ecosystem, with sophisticated water systems and one of the biggest ranges of species in the zoo. The five keepers on the exhibit’s staff had hoped reinforcements were coming, but further cuts would make that unlikely. Three keepers have to be on-site every day, so they will work seven or eights days in a row when anyone gets sick and cut back on the question-and-answer time with visitors.

“We’re pretty much running from one place to another,” keeper Rebecca Miller said as she tossed an ice ring to the sea lions, her hands still smelling of the 150 pounds of fish and squid that are cut each morning. She has missed weddings, Thanksgivings and Christmases, and usually works federal holidays.

“It’s become kind of a lifestyle,” she said. “We do it because we love the animals.”

Steve Hendrix came to The Post more than ten years ago from the world of magazine freelancing and has written for just about every page of the paper: Travel, Style, the Magazine, Book World, Foreign, National and, most recently, the Metro section’s Enterprise Team.
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