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Spelman to Quit Zoo Post

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 this morning, saying that they were reviewing the study and that they intended to provide a response at a news conference later today. Officials with the science academy also would not comment until the report was released this morning.

National Zoo director Lucy H. Spelman will step down at the end of the year. (Rich Lipski - The Washington Post File Photo)

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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 coming to 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. 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.

The findings cover some of the same issues addressed in a Washington Post series published in December that found that neglect, misdiagnosis or other mistakes had marked the deaths of 23 animals in the past six years. The series raised questions about preventive health care, nutrition and pest control. It also found that records were changed or were incomplete in files on eight animal deaths.

The panel also criticized the zoo for violating protocols to prevent the introduction of new pathogens into the collection by permitting employees, including Spelman, to bring their own pets to the zoo for treatment. "Procedures may have been violated when staff-owned pets were brought onto the National Zoo grounds for veterinary examinations and care," the panel found. "Even as a professional courtesy, bringing pets into the zoo represents a potential risk to the collection and a violation of the zoo's own policies and procedures."

Management was taken to task for failing to develop a comprehensive strategic plan. "It does have an animal collections plan and a 10-year facility revitalization plan in place, but these are not substitutes for a comprehensive planning process that takes into account all aspects of the zoo's operational structure," the report states.

The 15-member panel selected by the science academy includes people with expertise in veterinary medicine, animal care and nutrition, and zoo management and administration. The panel submitted a draft of the report to 16 other reviewers for advance feedback.

The panel held a public hearing in August, which featured testimony from Spelman and others. Members received stacks of veterinary records, letters and other documents from the zoo, other zoos and the park's supporters and critics. Much of the material dealt with general animal care practices and protocol rather than specific animal deaths.

In late November, the zoo's longtime associate pathologist, Donald K. Nichols, resigned and gave the science panel packets of animal documents alleging that the management of the zoo, especially its veterinary care, "has been chaotic and inept." He said he could document mistakes by Spelman, who had previously been the zoo's head veterinarian; Suzan Murray, the current head veterinarian; and other veterinarian staff in 21 cases, including those of 19 animals that died.

Spelman, who was named zoo director in June 2000 by Smithsonian Secretary Lawrence M. Small, submitted a lengthy defense of animal care to the science panel Dec. 31. She disputed Nichols's claims that veterinarians did not do thorough physical examinations of several animals, causing some illnesses to remain undetected.

But Spelman also acknowledged a range of staff errors in caring for 15 animals that died.

Spelman has been at the zoo about nine years. She started work as associate veterinarian and became chief veterinarian in September 1999.

Staff writer Spencer S. Hsu contributed to this report.

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