The National Zoo is struggling with crumbling buildings, a stagnant animal collection, insufficient funding, severe staffing and morale problems and a director whose management skills do not match her enthusiasm, according to an outside audit.
The report by the American Zoo and Aquarium Association illustrates why it granted only provisional one-year accreditation Wednesday to the internationally known animal park. The zoo, which is part of the Smithsonian Institution, released the report yesterday.
An association spokeswoman said the decision signified that the accreditation commission believes the zoo can turn around its troubles within a year and win full-fledged five-year reaccreditation. David L. Evans, the Smithsonian undersecretary for science, said yesterday that he believes most required improvements can be made in the next six months, rather than a year.
"If you take a look at the major concerns the commission had, almost all of them are either well underway at this point in being addressed or there's been good progress made," said Evans, who oversees the zoo. "A couple of things will take some time, but we've made a good start on all of them, and we will be well along in six months' time."
Nevertheless, the decision this week at the accreditation commission meeting in Columbia, S.C., was a major setback for the zoo, which has never had less than full accreditation since the process became mandatory in 1985. The inspection report made it clear that the visit began on a sour note: Before leaving for the zoo on the first day, the three-member team read a news article about a personnel shake-up prompted by the accidental poisoning of two rare red pandas, which were killed when a rat eradication program went awry.
That poisoning is among a series of animal deaths at the zoo that the inspection report said need to be reviewed, with "necessary action steps taken" to follow up. Zoo officials told the commission that a panel of experts has been chosen to conduct such a review. A National Academy of Sciences committee is expected to begin a year-long review in mid-April.
The 29-page inspection report on the Connecticut Avenue animal park pointed to a variety of weaknesses in its management, finances, staffing and facilities.
Although the accreditation team said Director Lucy H. Spelman "has performed exceptionally well in many aspects," it criticized her for making mistakes based upon "relative inexperience at the director level" and suggested that she seek advice from more seasoned colleagues. It noted that many zoo staff members believe that Spelman, who had been chief veterinarian before becoming director in June 2000, continues to supervise veterinary care, creating a perception of conflict of interest.
Spelman, in a statement released last night, pointed out that the zoo remains accredited. "We are continuing to make changes to improve our facilities and to maintain high standards in animal care," she said.
Among the management failures the inspection report found was a lack of an organized system to review animal diets, though it noted that improvements are on the way, and poor communication between keepers and management-level staff, as well as a lack of formal training for keepers.
The report said zoo management also needs to revitalize its collection of aging animals, which "has been relatively stagnant over the past four to five years." The lack of new animals is especially evident in the Small Mammal House, the report said.
The severe staffing problems are caused by federal budget tightening that forced the zoo to leave jobs unfilled, so current employees are overworked, the report said. Funding cutbacks in 1996 forced a wave of retirements of experienced staff members, and some of their replacements had no experience caring for the animals they were supposed to oversee, the report noted.
Lack of money is also to blame for the unacceptable condition of some zoo buildings, the report said, citing a "tremendous amount of deferred maintenance" over the years. Some older facilities, such as parts of the bear area, are so deteriorated that they no longer house animals, the report said, and other areas have rusted surfaces, peeling paint and leaky plumbing.
The inspectors, all officials of other zoos, praised an "atmosphere of optimism" among the staff members at the animal park in Northwest Washington, Spelman's quick response to the deaths, improved facility management, strong research and conservation programs, and a knowledgeable and committed animal care staff that tries innovative techniques.
The zoo association granted five-year accreditation to the National Zoo's internationally regarded Conservation and Research Center in Front Royal, Va., which Smithsonian Institution Secretary Lawrence Small had ordered closed shortly after he named Spelman to run the zoo.
However, the attempt to close the conservation center "has created a climate of distrust, poor morale and uncertainty in the CRC directorate," the report said. "Although the decision was reversed, the damage to staff morale has not been adequately addressed by senior staff."
Zoo officials yesterday released their response to the report, acknowledging that most of the criticisms are true and are being addressed. For example, recognizing that the federal payment to the zoo is not likely to increase, zoo officials said they reduced staffing in other areas to expand the animal care staff.
The two problems that will take longest to address, Smithsonian officials acknowledged, are crumbing facilities and the static animal collection.
Zoo officials noted that the current-year appropriation for facility repair, maintenance and revitalization is $18 million, $2 million more than the Smithsonian asked for, and that a multiyear renovation program is underway. The zoo also is drafting a long-range animal collection plan and said it plans to bring in two pygmy hippos, two lions, a Chinese alligator and other animals in the next few months.
The inspection team said its review of the most publicized recent animal deaths found no "common cause or failure."
Among the deaths were those of two rare Grevy's zebras in the winter of 2000. One died at the main zoo and the other at the conservation center. Both died of hypothermia and other complications and were found to have little body fat.
A report to the zoo's animal welfare committee said Spelman had ordered the zebras' diet cut the previous fall. However, in its response to the inspection committee, the zoo blamed the animal care staff, saying it "failed to follow winter protocols including ensuring adequate heat, bedding and food."
Although some have linked the death of a lion in the fall to human error, the inspection committee did not criticize the zoo. The lion, Tana, had been anesthetized for a medical examination and was found dead the next morning. A necropsy blamed complications of anesthesia. The death "appeared to be one of the unfortunate and unpredictable anesthesia related deaths that occur occasionally," the inspection report said.
Staff writer Karlyn Barker contributed to this report.