National Zoo director Lucy H. Spelman today announced plans to resign, just hours after a critical independent review was released and following more than a year of controversy over animal deaths, veterinary care and management at the 114-year-old federal animal park.
The interim report by the National Academy of Sciences found significant failings in animal care, pest control, record-keeping and management that threatened the health and safety of animals at the Smithsonian Institution's animal park.
National Zoo director Lucy H. Spelman will step down at the end of the year.
(Rich Lipski - The Washington Post File Photo)
"I have pushed, pulled and prodded to move the zoo forward," Spelman said in an afternoon news conference. "But now, to accelerate the rate of our progress, I have concluded that it is time for me to move on at the end of this year. I have become a lightning rod for too much attention. It has become a distraction for the zoo and the Smithsonian."
She said she would leave the zoo at the end of the year.
The announcement was first made to employees earlier this afternoon in an e-mail from a zoo spokeswoman.
The report, which is part of a year-long study being done for Congress, states, "There has been a longstanding failure of staff to abide by National Zoo policy and procedures. In some cases these failures endanger the safety of the animal collection."
At a news conference today, R. Michael Roberts, chairman of the panel, said the problems at the zoo were widespread. "As far as we can see, there are problems at all levels at the zoo. This culture is not a new culture. It has evolved and it is fairly longstanding. We think there has been a slippage in standards."
"We believe there has been a pervasive weakness throughout the institution, from the keeper level to management," said Roberts, a professor of veterinary pathology at the University of Missouri.
Roberts also said noted that panel members were concerned about failings in nutrition programs and preventive veterinary care for the animals.
"The preventive medicine program is not being fully implemented," Roberts said, "and since 1998 veterinary staff have not been following their own guidelines in terms of providing annual exams, vaccinations, and infectious-disease testing, despite having adequate medical facilities and adequate numbers of qualified veterinarians."
Although the report credits zoo officials with trying to make improvements in the past year, it says that there remains "a backlog of animals that have not received examinations, vaccinations or tests as prescribed by the preventive medicine program."
The report 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 committee stated that the zoo's practice of altering veterinary records "weeks and years" after animals were treated is "unacceptable" and "affect the credibility of the information contained in the medical record."
The zoo has had chronic problems with rats and mice. The science panel found that pest control, while showing signs of improvement, "remains inadequate and poses a potential threat to the animal collection, employees and visitors."
Animal death rates at the zoo have declined from 10 percent to 7 percent in the past two years, the study found, and the fluctuations were attributed to biological variation, changing collection and aging animals. But panelists determined they had insufficient data to determine whether the zoo's mortality rate was within acceptable bounds for a zoo compared with other zoos. The panel plans to continue to look into death rates.