The Smithsonian Institution has narrowed its search for a new National Zoo director to a small group of candidates and hopes to have someone in place by the beginning of next year, officials said.

A 10-member committee headed by David L. Evans, the Smithsonian's undersecretary for science, has held several meetings since June and spoken with 36 applicants. A short list of about a half-dozen people will be interviewed at greater length this month.

"We have excellent candidates with a diversity of backgrounds," Evans said in an interview Friday. "We're looking for somebody with experience and real leadership capabilities who has managed complicated organizations."

Smithsonian officials declined to name any candidates, who have been drawn from zoos, conservation work and university-affiliated research laboratories and programs, they said. Evans said two candidates are from "inside the [Smithsonian] organization."

The new zoo director, Evans said, will need a strong background in science and animal care and will need to help with fundraising. "A lot of work needs to be done on that front," he said.

The current zoo director, Lucy H. Spelman, announced in February that she will step down at the end of the year. That announcement came hours after a congressionally ordered study of the zoo was made public, flagging problems with animal care, record-keeping and pest control.

The National Academy of Sciences, which did the study, concluded in an interim report that the once world-renowned facility failed to follow its own policies and procedures, fell behind on making sure its collection had annual exams and had widespread lapses that threatened the well-being of its 2,600 animals.

Spelman, the zoo's former head veterinarian, was handpicked in 2000 by Smithsonian Institution Secretary Lawrence M. Small to help revitalize the zoo, even though she had not been screened by a Smithsonian search committee.

During her brief tenure, Spelman became a polarizing figure at the 163-acre complex abutting Rock Creek Park in Northwest Washington. Supporters said she was turning the zoo around after inheriting a stagnant animal collection and deteriorating facilities; detractors criticized her scant managerial experience, management style and animal care.

The Smithsonian, which oversees the zoo, wants a new director on board by January. If there is any change in this timetable, officials said, it would not delay Spelman's departure.

"Lucy will be leaving at the end of the year, Dec. 31," said Linda St. Thomas, a Smithsonian spokeswoman. "She will not stay on. She will not be taking another position at the zoo."

St. Thomas said that if a new director is not on the job, the general practice would be to have someone from within the Smithsonian serve as acting director.

Peper Long, the zoo's spokeswoman, said Friday that Spelman, 41, plans to do some international traveling before starting any new job.

One crisis Spelman faced within a year of becoming director was Small's decision to save $2.8 million by closing the zoo's 3,200-acre Conservation and Research Center in Front Royal, Va. That plan died in the face of congressional opposition, though a science commission appointed by Small has said the facility needs to raise its own funds to survive.

Evans said last week that the research center "is making pretty good progress reaching out to other partners" and that it does not appear to be in jeopardy.

"I'm telling all potential directors that building and maintaining a really vigorous science program is certainly part of the agenda for the zoo," he said, citing the zoo's pioneering research work in several scientific fields.

The National Academy of Sciences recently sent its final report on zoo operations to an outside panel for peer review. The report will be released this fall, hopefully in November, according to William Kearney, an academy spokesman.

"In general, the Smithsonian has been very forthcoming," Kearney said, in supplying zoo materials and other documents requested by the academy.

The only exceptions were a pair of documents that point to a history of morale problems at the zoo. The Smithsonian refused to turn over the results of a 2002 Smithsonian-wide employee survey and a separate study, commissioned by the previous zoo director in 1992, on zoo management decision-making and its effect on employee attitudes.

The employee survey, according to a copy obtained by The Washington Post, indicated that zoo morale had dropped despite Spelman's efforts to improve communication. The zoo management study, according to a summary obtained by The Post, flagged employee concerns about miscommunication, leadership, gender and racial bias and "a sense of mistrust."

St. Thomas said the Smithsonian declined to comply with the academy's request for the employee survey and the zoo management report because they are "internal documents" meant only for staff and managers.