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Report on Zoo Cites Progress And Problems

By Karlyn Barker and D'Vera Cohn
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, January 20, 2005; Page A01

The National Zoo has made important strides in the past year toward correcting weaknesses in animal care and management but needs to do much more before it can regain its reputation as a world-class animal park, according to an independent report released yesterday.

A National Academy of Sciences committee, winding up a review of animal deaths and zoo management for Congress, said it did not find poor animal care to be a widespread problem at the zoo or its research facility in Front Royal, Va. Despite some widely publicized accounts of inadequate veterinary practices, the panel concluded that most animals whose records it examined received appropriate care.

R. Michael Roberts, chairman of the panel, said that the zoo "has made some noticeable improvements" but that problems "still need to be addressed." (Nikki Kahn -- The Washington Post)

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In several cases, though, the committee said record-keeping was so poor that it could not assess the quality of care or determine whether mistakes contributed to the animals' deaths.

While expressing confidence in the quality of veterinary care, the report said the zoo needs a more rigorous system for training staff involved in daily animal care. It also said the zoo should establish "a climate of accountability and personal responsibility" at all levels. The report said the zoo must act to renovate long-deteriorating facilities.

"The National Zoo has been through an extended period of substantial upheaval as it attempts to reverse a decade-long decline," the panel's chairman, R. Michael Roberts, said at a news conference yesterday. It "has made some noticeable improvements in the past year in zoo operations and animal care, but problems in . . . staff training, workplace culture and strategic planning still need to be addressed."

He praised the dedication of the zoo's staff.

The report's call for change comes as the Smithsonian Institution, which oversees the zoo, seeks a replacement for Lucy H. Spelman. The director left the job last month after saying that she had become such a lightning rod for criticism that it hindered reform efforts.

The report cited gains in veterinary care, nutrition, record-keeping and establishing job performance goals but said more needs to be done, particularly at the zoo's Conservation and Research Center in Virginia.

The zoo's acting director, David L. Evans, said at a separate news conference that the report was "a strong vote of confidence" in the zoo and the direction in which it is going.

"The National Zoo remains one of the top zoos -- maybe not the premier zoo at this point, but we'll certainly get back there," he said. "And I think they give us good directions for getting there."

Evans, undersecretary for science at the Smithsonian Institution, said the report's conclusion that the majority of animals received proper medical care was the most important finding. He said the animal park already is implementing many of the panel's recommendations.

For example, zoo officials said, veterinarians have established a monthly schedule for animal exams, tests and vaccinations. To address record-keeping concerns, managers instituted an electronic record system for keepers. A management training program was started last year, and a keeper training program is being created.

The absence of a permanent director has not hampered the zoo's progress, Evans said. A search committee has not found a replacement for Spelman, and an outside firm has been hired to help. Evans said he hopes to name a new director within a few weeks.

Congress requested the $450,000 outside review after the deaths of two endangered red pandas, which in January 2003 ate rat poison buried in their yard. The committee included zoo and animal care experts led by Roberts, a professor at the University of Missouri.

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