So the National Zoo's nutritionist thought that "an enlarged belly in equines is a symptom of poor nutrition" [Metro, March 3]? Hardly.
As any horseman can tell you, that's called a hay belly, and it results from equines' digestive system working a little harder to digest dry forage. It's not harmful, merely unaesthetic. And as any horseman could also tell you, you should never restrict the quantity of good-quality hay in cold weather. Eating good forage is what keeps equines warm in cold weather. What a shame that no one at the National Zoo seemed to know that.
I have been a veterinary consultant to the National Zoo for seven years, and I have found Director Lucy H. Spelman's care for the animals to be consistently outstanding. Ms. Spelman works long hours and has nurtured relationships with outside experts to ensure state-of-the-art treatment for the animals. I have known her to always consult with other zoo veterinarians to find the most current knowledge and experience to benefit her patients.
Zoo animals are not like dogs, cats and horses, which can be safely approached and worked with easily. To conduct a physical exam on a zebra, for example, requires general anesthesia; therefore the risks and benefits must be carefully considered. Wild animals often do not display obvious symptoms of sickness, because to appear sick in the wild can have fatal consequences. Further, the National Zoo has a lot of geriatric animals. It is inevitable that problems will occur at a greater rate in these animals.
Ms. Spelman is a dedicated, competent veterinarian who is well respected by her peers, and the National Zoo is lucky to have a director of her caliber.
Although they had a short list of candidates for zoo director that included individuals who ran other major American zoos, Smithsonian leaders handpicked Lucy Spelman and asked her to apply for the position.
Whatever Ms. Spelman's talents, she had neither broad experience in zoo and personnel management nor in-depth knowledge of zoo biology; both are prerequisites for taking over the formidable responsibility of running one of the world's great zoos. Further, Ms. Spelman's decision to assume the combined responsibility of veterinarian and zoo director compromised her effectiveness in both roles. The director's job is to lead by inspiring the intellectual and skilled power of the staff.
Historically, scientific research at the National Zoo has been a force uniting education, design, the shops and the keepers. Research engendered a pride of accomplishment, international praise and world leadership. No single piece of research would have prevented some of the recent tragedies, but a heightened sense of purpose and communication would raise the bar of excellence, leadership and awareness in the areas of zoo biology and animal care.
The writer was head curator of mammals at the National Zoo from 1980 to 1996.