Zoo Operates Under Gaps In Oversight

James V. Grimaldi, Karlyn Barker and D'Vera Cohn
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, December 8, 2003

Three years ago, officials at the National Zoo euthanized Nancy, an African elephant suffering from foot problems so painful that the 31/2-ton pachyderm leaned her head on the bars of the enclosure to lighten the weight on her feet.

Then zoo pathologists did a necropsy and found something worse: Nancy's lungs were eaten up by tuberculosis, a contagious respiratory disease that went undiagnosed even though records show she exhibited classic symptoms on and off for two years.

Even worse: The National Zoo had failed for almost two years to conduct annual tuberculosis tests on its elephants, which federal rules required of every zoo and circus in the nation after two circus elephants died of TB in 1996.

The zoo's veterinarians at the time, including the zoo's current director, Lucy H. Spelman, were too busy to do the tests, zoo officials said. "I was completely consumed treating really sick animals, of which Nancy [the] elephant was one," Spelman said in an interview last week.

After Nancy's death in August 2000, zoo officials started testing keepers and other elephants, and took other steps to protect the public from exposure. The zoo told the public that the Elephant House was closed for renovations but did not reveal that its euthanized elephant had TB. By mid-September, Spelman learned that zoo staff had tested negative and that the TB was a form that is less infectious than the kind usually found in humans.

Later that month, when a BBC film crew arranged a visit to the Elephant House, Spelman wrote in an e-mail to staff: "I do not see the need to discuss the [TB] issue with the BBC crew unless asked directly." Instead, she advised, staff should say that safety precautions were taken because "the group dynamics changed with the loss of the African elephant."

In October 2000, the zoo announced the existence of the TB in a news release but said there was no public health risk.

"I don't believe I ever put anybody at risk for getting any form of infectious disease from any of our animals, ever," Spelman said last week.

Nancy's death exposed a weak enforcement regime exacerbated by a regulatory gap at the zoo, a Smithsonian Institution animal park. A nine-month Washington Post review of the circumstances surrounding the death of Nancy and other animals found:

* The U.S. Department of Agriculture regulates zoos and enforces the requirement for annual TB tests. But USDA says it has no power to enforce the Animal Welfare Act at the National Zoo. That is because the zoo is a separate federal entity chartered by Congress.

* The National Zoo's only internal oversight body, the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee, rarely meets or conducts investigations, contrary to the zoo's own policy and federal regulations. In January 2001, the panel shied away from investigating Spelman's veterinary care, citing the "apparent conflict of interest for the [committee] presented by Dr. Spelman's serving as director while still practicing veterinary" medicine, according to the committee's minutes.

After Spelman became director three years ago, keeper Maria Moyers withdrew an allegation that Spelman took eight days to respond to requests to care for an injured tree kangaroo named Guinness. Any finding of fault would have been referred back to the zoo director, Spelman. "What's the point?" Moyers said in a recent interview. "How can you be objective if the complaint is against you?"

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