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Report on Zoo Cites Progress And Problems

The panel issued an interim report last February that identified problems with animal care, record-keeping and pest control. Within hours of that report's release, Spelman, once the zoo's head veterinarian, announced plans to resign.

In a statement yesterday, members of the House Administration Committee, which oversees the Smithsonian and sought the review, predicted that the study will help in restoring the zoo as America's top animal park.

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)

_____About the National Zoo_____
Zoo Found Deficient in Monkey's Death (The Washington Post, Jan 8, 2005)
Zoo Director Search Begins Anew (The Washington Post, Dec 17, 2004)
Capturing Information, Imaginations on Comprehensive Web Site (The Washington Post, Dec 12, 2004)
More About the Zoo
Giant Pandas Special Report

The zoo's troubles led the American Zoo and Aquarium Association to give it only a provisional one-year accreditation in 2003 before granting it a full five-year accreditation last year. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which regulates zoos, began a series of surprise inspections, replacing its previous announced-in-advance visits. The zoo also agreed to give the District more authority over the use of pesticides in the animal park.

The zoo has an operating budget of nearly $40 million and a collection of about 2,500 animals. The 115-year-old animal park in Northwest Washington attracts 2 million visitors a year.

For its final report, the science panel reviewed records on 48 animals that died at the zoo and research center since 1998. Some cases were highly publicized, and others were examined at random. In most cases, the report said the animals received acceptable care.

In nearly every case of inadequate care, the panel said, poor communication among staff members -- keepers, veterinarians, nutritionists, managers and others -- played a key role. Zoo managers were warned about this problem in a 1993 report, the committee said, but failed to act.

Record-keeping deficiencies were cited in 17 animal cases, most involving medical records that were missing or altered.

One case the panel examined was the well-publicized death of an orangutan euthanized by Spelman in 2000 because its diarrhea was thought to indicate a recurrence of cancer. Critics have said veterinarians should have diagnosed that the animal had salmonella, a treatable infection. But the committee said that given the animal's previous cancer surgery, the diagnostics performed on the animal were acceptable and the euthanasia justified.

The committee said it could not resolve allegations that Spelman performed an ultrasound on the orangutan and misread it, leading to the euthanasia. Spelman's veterinary notes indicate that she did not conduct the test, but a curator and several keepers have said they watched her do it. The panel said its "science-based evaluation" did not try to sort out conflicting accounts about animal care.

"We're not an investigative group," said Jennifer Obernier, the study's staff director. "We have to go with what's written down."

Five animal deaths were attributed to poor care or lack of oversight, including the accidental poisoning of the red pandas, the deaths of two rare zebras from starvation and hypothermia, and the death of a macaque because of a surgical mistake.

In about a third of the examined cases, the panel gave overall zoo care a mixed review. It said there were several instances in which inadequate care was evident but did not appear to contribute to the animal's death.

A cusimanse, for example, "received less than ideal care" because the veterinary staff failed to perform diagnostic tests on the African mammal in a timely manner. And a rare Scimitar-horned oryx, left alone after going into labor, died of complications from giving birth. But the panel said that the cusimanse had a long history of renal failure and that monitoring the oryx might not have changed the outcome.

The committee noted that many of the deaths it reviewed involved geriatric animals, making it impossible to determine retrospectively whether death "was caused by a specific instance of inadequate care, the animal's many medical problems, or both."

Donald K. Nichols, a former associate pathologist at the zoo who turned over material to the panel about more than 20 animal deaths, expressed disappointment in the final report.

"My primary purpose for submitting [the information] was to try to force the committee to actually recognize and address the zoo's problems" with animal care, said Nichols, who performed postmortem examinations in many of the most controversial cases. "It appears that my efforts have failed."

Richard Farinato, who monitors zoo issues for the Humane Society of the United States, called the report "dangerous" because, he said, it gives a false sense that there are no animal care problems. "They don't pinpoint that basic mistakes were made in veterinary care that cost animals their lives," he said.

The final report said the zoo has met 11 of 15 action-plan standards set for it in the interim report. It said that the zoo's pest-control program has not made sufficient progress and that maintenance is not being done quickly enough.

The report said the zoo has been warned for more than a decade in accreditation reports that it needs to set up a formal training program with written animal-husbandry guidelines. Staff members, the panel said, also need to stay up to date in their fields.

The report also criticized the zoo's employee health and safety program, saying that its clinic is inadequate and that its policies on employee vaccination and testing are inconsistent.

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