NATIONAL ZOO DIRECTOR Lucy H. Spelman testified at a congressional oversight hearing last week, her back to the dozens of reporters and animal rights activists hungry for answers about why so many animals have died under her watch. Ms. Spelman has not always been her best defender; she and other zoo officials have been evasive and slow in providing documents that could verify their explanations. And in this hearing, legislators gave her kid-glove treatment, spending more time making rat jokes than probing the various animal deaths.
Still, with her written testimony Ms. Spelman answered enough of the concerns to stave off demands, for the moment at least, that she resign. The deaths of two red pandas, which ate rat poison, she attributed clearly to human error. She has since changed zoo policy on handling all chemicals. She also admitted that a zebra that died from the cold after its diet was cut while she was the head veterinarian was also the victim of human error. The other deaths catalogued in a Washington Post story by D'Vera Cohn and James V. Grimaldi could be attributed to "differences in professional opinion." By that she meant that a team of caretakers and vets could reasonably disagree on courses of treatment when faced with a sick animal. Again, this answers only some of the questions. In the case of the death of an orangutan, for example, Ms. Spelman's account of the pathology report differs from that of the pathologist quoted in the Post story. The death of a Persian onager, which became infected with salmonella after riding in a contaminated trailer, seems like a case of sloppy handling.
During the hearing, Ms. Spelman, members of Congress and officials from the Smithsonian agreed on new oversight measures. Ms. Spelman has hired a general curator to monitor the zoo's daily operations. Congress has ordered an investigation of the current problems by the National Academy of Sciences. And officials agreed to waive the zoo's exemption from a federal law that requires unannounced inspections by the U.S. Department of Agriculture at all zoos. But this too will only go so far. The General Accounting Office has already criticized the USDA for its spotty inspection record elsewhere. Also, the zoo's exemption and arguably other problems stem from the zoo's unique congressional charter. The zoo, for example, is not subject to the Freedom of Information Act or to many health and safety rules. Congress, whose members repeatedly refer to the zoo as "our national treasure," should consider a charter change that would make the zoo truly accountable to the nation.