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Ill Zoo Workers Treated in Secrecy, Report Says

By Karlyn Barker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 2, 2004; Page B01

Three National Zoo employees were dizzy and nauseated from exposure to rat poison left in the red panda yard. Before they received medical attention, they were told not to tell the ambulance crew what had happened or that they worked at the zoo.

The ambulance did not come into the zoo. Instead, the zoo workers, sickened last year, were driven to a Metro station to meet the vehicle. One employee was told to cover a zoo insignia with a jacket before going to the hospital.

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Employees provided those accounts to an investigator from the Smithsonian Institution's inspector general's office, which was looking into the deaths of two red pandas that ate the rat poison in their yard in January 2003.

The inspector general's report says that when the zoo called D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services for help, it asked that the hazardous materials unit be "discreetly dispatched."

But the report, obtained recently by The Washington Post, does not delve into the city's response or explain how the instructions to the employees came about.

The employees told the investigator that they got their directions from a fire department team that was called to the zoo.

Large portions of the copy of the report that was provided to The Post -- including names -- were blacked out because of privacy and other concerns. The accounts of the employees were in a heavily redacted attachment to the report that summarized their statements.

Neither the zoo nor the city could explain this week why there would have been a need for secrecy. Zoo officials said the fire department was in charge of the medical response. A city official said he was unable to confirm that anyone from the fire department gave the instructions to the zoo employees.

"We have no documentation" of these instructions, said Alan Etter, a fire department spokesman. "I can't imagine anyone advising them to do this. . . . Maybe the employees were confused."

Etter said an ambulance typically would have gone to the zoo to transport the sick employees, unless its crew was told to go to the Metro station. He said the initial call from the zoo did not say there was an emergency.

"No one indicated there were sick people," he said. "No one indicated there were dead animals."

When the department's hazardous materials unit arrived at the zoo and realized there were sick employees, Etter said, it called for an ambulance.

The zoo said the fire department made all decisions about transporting the employees.

"We do not know the precise nature of the original call from the zoo employee to D.C. Fire/Hazmat, but we assume if he or she asked that they be discreet, it was to avoid public panic," Linda St. Thomas, a Smithsonian spokeswoman, said in an e-mail.

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