Pattern of Mistakes Found in Zoo Deaths

Karlyn Barker and James V. Grimaldi
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, December 7, 2003

Neglect, misdiagnosis or other mistakes have marked the deaths of 23 animals at the National Zoo in the past six years, and some veterinary records are incomplete or were changed after the fact, according to documents and interviews with current and former zoo employees.

A review of thousands of pages of zoo reports shows that records were changed or were incomplete in files on eight animal deaths -- including the deaths of an orangutan, a lion and a giraffe.

In three cases -- involving the lion, a bobcat and a rare bird -- notations have been deleted or passages have been added in electronic veterinary records. No official veterinary record was filed after the death of a giraffe during an anesthesia procedure. The zoo said it could not provide keeper notes on the daily care of two rare zebras that died of hypothermia and starvation. Zoo euthanasia forms were not completed for the bobcat, a tree kangaroo and an endangered black-footed ferret.

In two cases -- involving an orangutan and one of the zebras -- the records are at odds with what a curator and a former curator say took place before the animals died.

Donald K. Nichols, a longtime zoo pathologist, alleged that records were "altered" after some deaths and accused the zoo of trying to "cover up" mistakes. He criticized the veterinary care in a recent letter to the National Academy of Sciences, which is investigating animal deaths.

Zoo Director Lucy H. Spelman said in an interview last week that there was no intention to obscure facts about the animal deaths when records were changed. She described the electronic veterinary records as "sort of a living document" and said corrections would have been based on the "veterinarian who's responsible feeling that a correction needs to be made." Spelman, formerly head veterinarian, did not comment on specific changes but said records are meant to provide "our best understanding of what is happening, has happened. It's complicated."

Spelman added, "Everybody here is here to try to make sure the animals are okay."

In the records and interviews, some patterns emerged.

Records show veterinarians did not tend to some sick animals promptly, particularly small mammals, and in some cases keepers and curators said veterinarians did not heed their concerns. Sometimes veterinarians were so focused on one problem that they missed a more serious one. An elephant received months of medical attention for a foot infection but was not given a federally required test that might have shown that it had tuberculosis. Two older giraffes also were treated for lameness, but no one diagnosed the age-related digestive problems that later killed them.

Sometimes, animals died as a result of medical procedures that went awry. A macaque, a type of monkey, was euthanized after urinary tubes were damaged in surgery to remove a tumor. A lion and a giraffe died during and after anesthesia procedures.

Spelman, who did the procedure on the giraffe, did not write up a veterinary record. She later provided The Washington Post with a copy of her notes."When an animal dies, so much is happening at that moment," she said in an interview last week. "That last medical record entry should be done, but obviously, in that case, I didn't get it done."

Animal deaths at the National Zoo have received extensive scrutiny since January, when two red pandas died after eating rat poison buried in their yard. At the request of Congress, the Academy of Sciences has launched its investigation.

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