The National Academy of Sciences received the final go-ahead yesterday for a yearlong review of animal care at the National Zoo, including a "scientific examination" of recent animal deaths and a series of public meetings -- the first of which will be held this summer at the animal park.
A panel of experts selected by the academy's Board on Agriculture and Natural Resources also plans to visit the zoo several times to talk with staff members and review records.
"These visits will be unscripted and committee members will be talking to people they pick," said academy spokesman Bill Skane. In addition, he said, the panel expects to receive "submissions from people with information and leads" about areas the committee could examine.
The review of animal care at the National Zoo was requested last month by the House Administration Committee during an oversight hearing on the Smithsonian Institution, including operations at the zoo. The committee asked the academy to examine a spate of recent animal deaths at the zoo, and also to look at animal deaths going back 10 years.
The American Zoo and Aquarium Association recently granted only a one-year provisional accreditation to the zoo, citing such factors as crumbling buildings, insufficient funding and the "relative inexperience" of Lucy H. Spelman, who became director in 2000.
The academy's executive committee yesterday approved the scope of the $450,000 study at its meeting. The 12-member review panel will include experts in veterinary medicine, animal health and nutrition, animal husbandry, pest management, pathology and wildlife, among others. The Smithsonian will pay the cost of the panel's work. An interim report is due in six months.
In a statement outlining its "Plan of Action," the academy said that some recent animal deaths "have been directly attributed to human error and others have raised questions about the management and adequacy of animal health and nutrition programs at the zoo."
Academy officials have been talking with prospective review-committee members, Skane said, but the panel's chairman and makeup won't be made public until the full committee is in place, a process he said would take about six weeks.
The names would then be published and there would be a 20-day public comment period to make sure none of the panel members has a potential bias or conflict of interest. Its first committee meeting at the zoo would probably be scheduled by midsummer, Skane said.
The accidental poisoning of two red pandas earlier this year aroused public concern for animal care at the zoo. Other deaths include two zebras accidentally killed by hypothermia and malnutrition in 2000; an orangutan that was euthanized in 2000 because it was mistakenly thought to have cancer; a Persian onager that died of salmonella at the zoo's Conservation and Research Center in Front Royal, Va., in 2000 after being transported in a contaminated trailer; three Eld's deer that died in 2001 after being attacked by dogs at the conservation center; and a lion that died at the zoo last fall of complications from anesthesia.
Questions also have been raised about the deaths of other animals, including a bobcat, an elephant, two giraffes and a tree kangaroo.
Zoo officials have acknowledged that human error killed the red pandas and zebras, and said they've taken steps to better protect all the animals.