Inside the Zoo Deaths
The deaths of 23 animals at National Zoo facilities within the past six years were marked by mistakes that included neglect and misdiagnosis, according to a review of thousands of pages of records and numerous interviews. In addition, some veterinary records have been changed or are incomplete. A National Academy of Sciences committee is investigating the zoo's animal care and management. Zoo Director Lucy H. Spelman, the former head veterinarian, said that many animals died of age-related problems and that the zoo is making significant improvements in care. Suzan Murray, head veterinarian, said that records routinely are edited to maintain and share important information and that other zoos follow a similar practice.

CHRONOLOGY OF DEATHS

Lionel (18 yrs., 6 mos.)
Masai giraffe
Life span:
Up to 25 years in captivity
Died: April 1998
Spelman: Associate Veterinarian

This giraffe vomited and choked to death while being anesthetized for hoof-trimming. Giraffes are high-risk animals to anesthetize because their bodies are difficult to support when sedated.

There is no veterinary record for the anesthesia procedure the day Lionel died. Spelman recently provided her notes for the procedure and said she should have written them up for the zoo's official records. She said she shared her notes with outside veterinarians after Lionel's death in an attempt to learn from the case.

  
Sybil (17 yrs.)
Celebes macaque
Life Span:
Unavailable
Euthanized: June 1998
Spelman: Associate Veterinarian

After surgery to remove an abdominal tumor, this animal did not urinate for four days and was euthanized. A pathology report found that the surgery perforated one urinary duct and cut through the other. The result was that urine accumulated in the abdominal cavity, not the bladder. Spelman did not respond to a request for comment.

  
Buumba (1 yr., 6 mos.)
Har (8 yrs., 8 mos.)
Grevy's zebras
Life Span:
40 years in captivity
Died: Jan., Feb. 2000
Spelman: Head Veterinarian

The two zebras died a week apart while waiting to be shipped to other zoos for endangered- species breeding programs. An internal zoo report found Spelman shared responsibility for Buumba's death because she had ordered food for all three zoo zebras to be cut in half the previous fall. Spelman said her order was meant for only one zebra, not Buumba.

The zoo could not provide many keeper records for the two zebras. There are no entries in veterinary records on Buumba for the eight months leading up to the day before he died. There are no entries on Har for the 22 months before his death. The zoo has said veterinarians did not treat the two zebras during those periods.

  
Pensi (32 yrs., 9 mos.)
Sumatran orangutan
Life Span:
Up to mid-40s
Euthanized: July 2000
Spelman: Head Veterinarian, Zoo Director

Animal care staff and veterinarians thought Pensi's diarrhea was a sign that her cancer had returned. The curator said Spelman did an ultrasound and saw an abnormality on Pensi's liver, so the zoo staff agreed to euthanize her rather than subject her to surgery. But pathologists said the liver was cancer-free and the diarrhea was caused by salmonella, a treatable infection that Pensi was not tested for. Spelman said that Pensi had malignant cancer and that treating her for salmonella "would not have changed the outcome."

Spelman's veterinary records do not say an ultrasound was done, and she says she cannot remember doing one. The required euthanasia form for Pensi was not completed until March 2001 and was not given to the curator to sign.

  
Nancy (46 yrs., 9 mos.)
East African bush elephant
Life Span:
50 to 70 years
Euthanized: August 2000
Spelman: Head Veterinarian, Zoo Director

Nancy was euthanized because of problems that were presumed to stem from a foot ailment and joint disease. A pathology report also found that she had tuberculosis. The zoo had not performed an annual TB test, required under federal law, for 22 months. Zoo veterinarians said they were too busy treating sick animals, including Nancy, to perform the test. Federal officials who regulate zoos have no authority to sanction the National Zoo because it is a Smithsonian Institution facility.

Pathologists told Spelman about the likelihood that Nancy had TB the day she was euthanized, but the zoo did not disclose the finding for two months. Meanwhile, the zoo tested keepers and the other elephants for TB and took other public health precautions.

  
Thandi (16 yrs., 2 mos.)
African lion
Life Span:
Mid-teens to 30s
Euthanized: Dec. 2000
Spelman: Head Veterinarian, Zoo Director

Veterinary records state that Thandi was anesthetized four times in 2000 for physicals and to investigate her difficulty eating. But veterinary records do not say that the lion's abdomen was ever examined. Murray said two radiographs of the abdomen were done. There is no indication of the results of those exams. In October, Thandi was anesthetized and taken to Gaithersburg for an MRI exam on her head. The records state that "given no lesions can likely rule out brain tumor" and thus the "most likely remaining condition is steroid responsive inflammatory." However, after the animal was put down, a pathology report found her abdomen was filled with multiple tumors.

  
Bambari (10 yrs., 1 mos.)
Eastern bongo antelope
Life Span:
Up to 19 years
Euthanized: June 2001
Spelman: Zoo Director

The antelope experienced weight loss and intermittent diarrhea. Five months later, when diarrhea persisted, she began having trouble walking. Radiographs were taken of her throat but not her abdomen. She was euthanized four days later. The pathology report found that she had a large benign tumor that filled most of the pelvic canal, compressing the colon.

  
Dot (17 yrs., 5 mos.)
Two-Toed Sloth
Life Span:
20+ years
Died: July 2001
Spelman: Zoo Director

After Dot's 1999 physical, medical notes by a veterinary student read: "Await bloodwork." Dot was not examined again until after she was found dead two years later. The two-year-old results showed she had renal failure. Murray said that, in general, vets are too busy taking care of sick animals to do annual physicals.

Bloodwork results were never recorded in veterinary records.

  
Ryma (16 yrs., 6 mos.)
Griff (19 yrs.)
Masai giraffes
Life Span:
Up to 25 years in captivity
Died: Feb., Sept. 2002
Spelman: Zoo Director

These giraffes died from age-related dental and digestive problems. After Ryma's death, the pathologist said that bamboo had irritated his gums and that he was undernourished. The zoo stopped feeding bamboo to its giraffes. The curator and keepers later reported that Griff had similar symptoms and asked whether other diet changes should be made. Murray discounted this theory, according to e-mail correspondence. Days later, Griff died.

After the first giraffe died, Spelman initially withheld pathology details from the media, citing the privacy rights of animals.

  
No name (4 yrs., 1 mo.)
Micronesian kingfisher
Life Span:
6-10 years
Died: August 2002
Spelman: Zoo Director

This rare bird was rushed to the veterinary hospital in respiratory distress, treated with fluids and later force-fed a baby mouse. The mouse was lodged in its throat when it was found dead the next day.

There are two versions of veterinary records about this bird: One version states that it arrived "weak/anemic" and the later one does not.

  
No name (5 yrs., 2 mos.)
White-fronted marmoset
Life Span:
Teens
Euthanized: Sept. 2002
Spelman: Zoo Director

At a 1999 medical examination, this animal was thought to be pregnant. The animal was not seen again for nearly three years, according to veterinary records. In August 2002, Murray removed a tumor from the animal's abdomen and said the tumor had been noted in 1999. Two days after surgery, the animal was found with its sutures ripped open. After two surgeries to repair the damage, the marmoset was euthanized.


  
Minya (20 yrs., 8 mos.)
Tree kangaroo
Life Span:
20-30 years
Died: October 2002
Spelman: Zoo Director

Minya had a jaw and cheek infection, but it took 10 days after keepers first reported the problem for her to have a thorough examination. The culture taken that day was lost and had to be taken again. The animal underwent many surgeries that failed to solve the problem, and ultimately she was put down. Murray said that Minya did receive a visual exam by a vet the day after a keeper called and that she was a "beloved animal" and received "excellent care from all departments."

No euthanasia form was done for this animal.

  
Tana (13 yrs., 10 mos.)
African lion
Life Span:
Mid-teens to 30s
Died: October 2002
Spelman: Zoo Director

Nearly twice as much anesthesia was used on Tana than in eight previous procedures. After being anesthetized for a physical exam to check on a limp, Tana was found dead in his cage the next morning. Keepers called twice after the exam to tell vets that Tana was groggy and glassy-eyed, but no vet checked on the animal after he was returned to his exhibit. The pathology report concluded that Tana died of complications of anesthesia. But Murray said the lion could have died of neurological problems.

Zoo records were changed to delete references to a keeper making the first injection of anesthesia. Some references to problems that occurred while the animal was under anesthesia were deleted or reworded in the later version of records.

  
Phoenix (23 yrs., 7 mos.)
Bobcat
Life Span:
Up to 32 years
Euthanized: Nov. 2002
Spelman: Zoo Director

When keepers reported that the animal was less active and eating less, vets suspected kidney failure. The pathology report after her death concluded that the kidneys were not at "end stage" but that the animal could not walk because her claws had grown into her paw pads. Murray said the bobcat was euthanized because of kidney problems, not a limp, and keepers agreed that they did not want to subject her to painful medical procedures.

Veterinary records were changed to add entries bolstering the assertion that the animal's quality of life had deteriorated because of kidney disease. No euthanasia form was done.

  
Luke (5 yrs., 7 mos.)
Quentin (7 yrs., 6 mos.)
Red pandas
Life Span:
Teens
Died: January 2003
Spelman: Zoo Director

These two endangered animals died after ingesting poison buried in their yard to kill rats. After the deaths, Spelman terminated the contract of a pesticide firm that was not licensed in the District, ousted two zoo employees and reassigned another. Spelman had shifted pest control oversight from the veterinary hospital; she moved it to the pathologist's office after the deaths. These deaths took place the day an inspection team visited from the American Zoo and Aquarium Association, which later gave the zoo only a provisional accreditation.


  
Captain (21 yrs)
Bald eagle
Life Span:
Unavailable
Died: July 2003
Spelman: Associate Veterinarian

Bird-keepers have been fighting a losing battle for years against predators, including foxes and hawks. In the 18 months before the eagle was killed by a fox, 25 other birds were found dead or went missing due to suspected predators. The zoo installed a $7,000 electrified fence around the wetlands area to fend off predators, but the eagle lived in an 80-year-old enclosure that was in poor condition.


  
DEATHS AT THE CONSERVATION RESEARCH CENTER AT FRONT ROYAL

Andy
Persian onager
Cause of death:
Salmonella
Died: July 2000
Spelman: Associate Veterinarian

This animal died at the zoo's Conservation Research Center in Front Royal after being transported in a trailer that had not been cleaned after carrying an infected oryx six days earlier.


  
Three Eld's deer
Cause of death: Dog attack
Died: March, June 2001
Spelman: Associate Veterinarian

Two deer were apparently killed by a dog that dug under a fence at the Front Royal conservation center. The third deer died after she slammed into a fence, apparently spooked by dogs.




*Suzan Murray became head vet in April 2001.

SOURCES: National Zoo veterinary records; keeper records; documents submitted to the National Academy of Sciences; interviews with current and former zoo employees.
  




© 2003 The Washington Post Company