5 Animal Deaths Renew Criticism of Care at Zoo
Wednesday, June 29, 2005
Staff members at the National Zoo fretted early last year over Kisangali, a female lion who was sick for weeks. She was lethargic and had bouts of vomiting and frequent thirst. Having ruled out digestive and kidney problems, a zoo veterinarian wrote in case notes that the troubles might be psychological.
Three weeks later, in February 2004, a raging infection in Kisangali's reproductive tract ruptured and spilled gallons of pus into her abdomen. Despite surgery, she died.
Veterinarians not affiliated with the zoo, who reviewed records at the request of The Washington Post, said the lion was showing classic symptoms of pyometra, a uterine infection. They maintained that the zoo, which is part of the Smithsonian Institution, missed an obvious diagnosis and failed to take surgical action early enough to save the 13-year-old animal.
"From the moment I started reading the medical history, my brain was screaming 'pyometra,' " said Peggy Larson, a former veterinary inspector for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Pyometra is "a very well-known condition that could account for all the signs noted in the record," said Gary Kuehn, a retired zoo veterinarian in California. "At least five veterinarians attended Kisangali, yet there is no record that any of them considered the possibility of pyometra."
The case is one of five deaths between December 2003 and December 2004 that raise new concerns about animal care at the National Zoo, according to three veterinarians and two other animal experts. A fourth veterinarian called the deaths "regrettable" but said he did not believe they reflected the overall care of animals at the zoo. The outside experts reviewed records, including medical notes and pathology reports, that the zoo provided to The Post.
In the other cases, zoo records and interviews show:
· A newly arrived emu, a large, flightless bird native to Australia, stopped breathing and died while veterinarians struggled to hold it to get a routine blood sample.
· A ring-tailed lemur, a small primate native to Madagascar, was not treated for a serious lung problem for nearly three months, until the animal had trouble breathing. The weakened lemur died five weeks later of a leg hemorrhage.
· An orangutan from the zoo's Think Tank exhibit was euthanized six weeks after being lent to a primate center in Iowa when veterinarians found a small hole in its inflamed bladder. The ape had suffered for two years from a rectal area abscess that appears to have spread infection to the bladder, according to veterinarians consulted by The Post.
· A Komodo dragon, a member of the largest lizard species in the world, died when an egg follicle and a blood vessel ruptured in an ovary. The animal, prone to reproductive tract infections, had not had a recommended internal ultrasound exam in nearly four years.
Zoo veterinarians said they failed to diagnose the lion's uterine infection but gave good care to the four other animals. They questioned the ability of outsiders to second-guess them.