The little girl slipped from her grandfather's hand and wandered past a skimpy guardrail into the lion's den. As she skipped along the cages, a lion grabbed her and -- as her desperate grandfather tried to save her -- mauled the 2-year-old to death.
That horrifying accident in 1958 turned an international spotlight on the National Zoo. It led to budget increases, a series of reforms, the creation of the philanthropic group Friends of the National Zoo and development of a long-term plan to rehabilitate the animal park, whose own director called it a "zoological slum."
Last week, the American Zoo and Aquarium Association said deteriorating facilities once again are a major shortcoming of the zoo. The association gave the zoo a year to fix those and other problems or lose its accreditation.
The report placed major blame for the huge pile of deferred maintenance on lack of federal financial support, which constitutes 70 percent of the zoo's budget. It all seems somewhat familiar to Ted Reed, who was zoo director 45 years ago.
"It wasn't until that little girl was killed that we got some construction," Reed said last week from Milford, Del., where he now lives. "The zoo has always had a financial problem because we were a federal agency run by the Smithsonian Institution and paid for by the District of Columbia. I had to walk a tightrope between two organizations."
This time, though, the roots of the zoo's budget crunch are more complex. Congress may not have provided sufficient money over the years, and sometimes it comes with strings attached, such as $5 million directed to build a farm animal exhibit. But Smithsonian and zoo officials have acknowledged they did not ask for enough in the past, either. And with giant federal deficits looming, it will be increasingly difficult for the zoo, which does not charge admission, to obtain government dollars.
Funding for the zoo until 1960 was the responsibility of the District. In 1960, after the death of 2-year-old Julie Ann Vogt, the federal government assumed capital improvement costs. In 1966, the zoo's operating and capital budgets became the full responsibility of the Smithsonian.
Last year, Smithsonian Secretary Lawrence M. Small and Zoo Director Lucy H. Spelman testified before the House Appropriations Committee about a massive backlog in maintenance work, including at the National Zoo. Spelman, who became zoo director in June 2000, presented a detailed plan while acknowledging that "over half of the zoo buildings have seriously compromised structural, mechanical, electrical and fire and life-safety systems."
Among the most seriously deteriorated facilities, according to zoo documents, are the Elephant House, the Bird House, the Small Mammals exhibit, Beaver Valley and the areas for bears, seals and sea lions. The bear area dates to 1898, nine years after the zoo was founded. The Elephant House was built in the 1930s.
A zoo report submitted to the accreditation committee said: "The terrible state of its physical facilities makes it impossible to classify the National Zoo as being world class today. . . . Years of inadequate funding have put the zoo on a downward spiral."
Rep. Norman D. Dicks (Wash.), the ranking Democrat on the appropriations subcommittee that funds the Smithsonian, criticized the institution, saying the problem was "too many new museums being built or proposed at the same time." But, Dicks added, "I would certainly acknowledge that Congress is a part of this problem."
According to the zoo's 1997 accreditation report, the animal park received no capital funding in 1998 because the Smithsonian preferred to use its funds to build the National Museum of the American Indian. The report warned that the zoo "is in danger of slowly eroding."
Small, who became head of the institution in January 2000, told a Senate hearing that June that the Smithsonian had to accept some of the blame for its deteriorating facilities because in the past the institution "has hesitated to represent to Congress the full scale of its need. Instead, we've tried to make do."
Zoo historian Jeffrey Hyson, an assistant professor at Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia, said that the National Zoo, like many others, was faced with the dilemma of either building big, crowd-drawing exhibits or spending money on maintaining older buildings. Often, as other zoos did, the National Zoo poured cash into the splashy exhibits, such as Think Tank or the $12 million Amazonia building, at the expense of upkeep.
"You are not going to get big donors, either private donors or congressional funding, to maintain older buildings," Hyson said. "It is just not sexy. Whereas, funders want to put their money in an exhibit that allows orangutans to communicate, or an exhibit that transports you to the rain forest."
Spelman's focus on renewing the zoo is paying off: The animal park will receive about $18.8 million for repair, maintenance and revitalization of facilities this fiscal year, compared with $6 million three years ago. The zoo's operating budget in recent years has remained fairly flat, increasing from about $19 million in fiscal 1998 to about $23.8 million in fiscal 2003.
But a zoo report said the capital funding will not be enough to cover all needs, and it noted that the Office of Management and Budget has not committed to fund its ambitious $200 million renewal program beyond 2004. The zoo hopes to raise $12 million from private donors for the first phase of its renovation, which will create an Asia Trail with pandas, sloth bears and other animals. "This, of course, is tough to do if private donors cannot be told that federal funding to complete a project is certain," the zoo report said.
The zoo association's accreditation report last week praised the improved relationship between the zoo and its fundraising arm, Friends of the National Zoo. Clinton Fields, executive director of FONZ, said the latest membership recruitment drive, conducted during a spate of news stories exposing zoo problems, has fallen slightly short of expectations. He also is worried that recent bad news will hurt other FONZ fundraising but notes that the bulk of the zoo's funds comes from public sources.
"To get the zoo on track is going to take both private and public funds," Fields said. "It can't be done by private moneys alone. It is a shared responsibility, and we're prepared to do our part."
Staff writer Karlyn Barker and researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.