SMITHSONIAN Institution and National Zoo officials are understandably defensive about stories criticizing animal care at the zoo. Since the zoo's operations came under scrutiny in 2003 after the deaths of several animals, the 163-acre facility has been -- at congressional direction -- the subject of an 18-month review by the National Academy of Sciences. The academy's panel of experts gave the zoo good grades on animal care but noted shortcomings in the administration and management areas. A recent Post story by staff writer Karlyn Barker about the deaths of five animals, however, has revived concern about treatment at the zoo. At issue again is whether the zoo is providing poor veterinary care.
The story drew a sharp response from Smithsonian undersecretary and interim zoo director David L. Evans, who called it overstated and filled with unjust criticism by questionable sources, including two disgruntled former employees. But the primary question the story raises is whether the three outside veterinarians and two animal experts who examined the five deaths for The Post were justified in expressing concerns about care at the zoo. The Smithsonian, it seems to us, would do well to review each case in light of the criticism and respond accordingly.
No reasonable observer would disagree that animal death is an inescapable part of zoo life or that medicine is not an exact science, as Mr. Evans has noted. Neither is the National Zoo staff's love of animals in question. But if zoo officials fail to properly diagnose a case, improperly examine a sick animal or miss a life-threatening situation, they should own up to that reality and take steps to prevent a recurrence. Dismissing criticism as second-guessing hardly advances understanding of the zoo's performance.
Media reviews of zoo operations should not be construed as an attack on the zoo's staff, as Mr. Evans has suggested. The 116-year-old National Zoo is a national treasure and, as such, will remain under a national microscope. Anything less than a safe and well-run zoo in the hands of licensed, quality veterinarians, keepers, curators and nutritionists is unacceptable to the 2 million people who visit each year and, of course, the animals.