Readers of the Feb. 12 editorial "Zoo Blues" might be led to believe that visitors to the Smithsonian's National Zoo were in danger or that they would not see their favorite animals. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Animals die each year, at our zoo and every zoo. Even with the best of care, most animals have shorter life spans than humans.

There is no mystery here. We know the cause of death of every animal and have detailed pathology and medical reports. The media have made much of the deaths of several "high-profile" animals at the National Zoo -- a white tiger, an African lion, a cheetah and two red pandas.

But, with one exception, all of these deaths were related to severe or chronic illnesses or to a sudden decline while veterinarians were working to understand what was wrong. Human error was a factor in only one case -- the red pandas.

Regardless of the rodent overpopulation (a citywide problem not unique to the zoo), pesticide pellets should never have been placed in an animal exhibit area. Tests conducted several days after the Jan. 11 red panda deaths found no remaining trace of the fumigant and therefore no danger to visitors or animals.

Zoo Director Lucy Spelman ordered a prompt review of all related management practices and procedures. Several changes have already been made -- and more restructuring may be forthcoming -- to ensure that such an accident never happens again.

The National Zoo remains a marvelous experience and is safe for all the animals that live here, the staff who work here and the millions of people who visit.

-- Robert Hoage

The writer is public affairs officer

at the National Zoo.