Panel Faults Care At Zoo
Report Notes Poor Pest Control, Altered Records
By Karlyn Barker and James V. Grimaldi
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, February 25, 2004; Page A01
An independent study of the National Zoo has found problems with animal care, record-keeping and pest control and concludes that the facility has failed to follow its own policies and procedures.
The interim report, part of a year-long study being done for Congress by the National Academy of Sciences, says the zoo has fallen behind on making sure its animals have annual exams and other preventive care, according to a summary obtained by The Washington Post. Officials plan to release the findings today.
"The current preventive medicine program at the National Zoo is not being fully implemented, and since 1998, veterinary staff members have not been adhering to this program in terms of providing annual exams, vaccinations and infectious-disease testing," according to the summary.
Although the summary credits zoo officials with trying to make improvements in the past year, it says there remains "a backlog of animals that have not received examinations, vaccinations or tests as prescribed by the preventive medicine program."
The summary flags shortcomings in the zoo's animal nutrition program, saying it has not coordinated efforts between its nutrition, keeper and veterinary staffs and has failed to regularly evaluate diets. On a broader scale, the summary says that the zoo's record-keeping is so poor that some veterinary records have been altered "weeks and years" after animals were treated.
The zoo has had chronic problems with rats and mice. The science panel said that pest control, while showing signs of improvement, "remains inadequate and poses a potential threat to the animal collection, employees and visitors."
Zoo Director Lucy H. Spelman, who has said that she welcomes the outside review, told the science panel in December that veterinarians fell behind on examinations and testing because they were short-staffed. The staffing issue has been corrected, she said. She has said in recent months that the zoo is taking steps to improve nutrition, pest control and record-keeping.
Zoo officials would not comment on the report last night, saying that they were reviewing the study and that they intended to provide a response at a news conference today. Officials with the science academy also would not comment until the report was released this morning.
The report marks the fourth time in the past year that problems with zoo operations have been flagged in an independent review. An audit released in March by the American Zoo and Aquarium Association found that the animal park suffered from crumbling buildings, a stagnant animal collection, morale problems and insufficient funding. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and U.S. Department of Agriculture have issued reports criticizing animal care.
The interim report -- the most comprehensive of all the studies -- comes at a critical time for the zoo, which has only a one-year provisional accreditation from the American Zoo and Aquarium Association. A decision on a full, five-year accreditation will be made next month.
The panel's work is costing $450,000 and is being paid for by the Smithsonian Institution. The zoo is one of the Smithsonian's most popular attractions, with 2.8 million visits a year at the 163-acre park in Northwest Washington.
The final report, due this summer, is to provide a more extensive assessment of the zoo.
The study was commissioned by Congress after the deaths of two endangered red pandas, which in January 2003 ate rat poison buried in their yard. The deaths raised concerns about animal care and sparked allegations of numerous other deaths attributed to neglect and misdiagnosis. The science academy yesterday provided briefings on the interim report to Congress as well as the Smithsonian.
The report provides case studies that illustrate deficiencies in animal care. It deals with the red pandas' deaths in a discussion on pest control, the summary said. It addresses preventive medicine in part by citing the case of an elephant that was found to have had tuberculosis only after it was euthanized for another problem. The review of nutrition and record-keeping provides details about the deaths of two zebras from hypothermia and starvation.
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