Is National Zoo a National Disaster? - Newsweek
- National Disaster?The chairman of a congressionally appointed task force discusses a shocking report on the state of the Smithsonian�s National ZooHillery Smith Garrison / APWEB EXCLUSIVEBy Brian BraikerNewsweekUpdated: 6:54 p.m. ET Feb. 27, 2004
Feb. 27 - Lucy Spelman, director of the 114-year old National Zoo in Washington, D.C., announced plans to retire Wednesday, the same day a highly critical, yearlong independent review by the National Academy of Sciences was released. That report found severe deficiencies at the zoo in animal care, pest control, record keeping and management that contributed to the deaths of 23 animals in the past six years. "I have pushed, pulled and prodded to move the zoo forward," Spelman, 41, said in a news conference announcing her resignation. �But now, to accelerate the rate of our progress, I have concluded that it is time for me to move on ... I have become a lightning rod for too much attention. It has become a distraction for the zoo and the Smithsonian."
The report is a grim catalog of failure: In January, two endangered adult male pandas died after rat-poison pellets that emit toxic fumes were buried in their yard for the first time. Two of the zoo�s four Grevy's zebras died in early 2000 of hypothermia, and necropsies showed the animals had "no body fat" to ward off the severe winter weather. In 2002, after being anesthetized for a physical exam to check on a limp, a middle-aged lion was found dead in his cage the next morning from complications relating to the anesthesia. Rats are depressingly common at the zoo, infesting the habitats of other animals; zookeepers were found to misplace and even alter records on animal care.
R. Michael Roberts was chairman of the congressionally mandated 15-member panel that conducted the study. Roberts, who is professor of animal sciences at the University of Missouri, Columbia, is a member of the National Academy of Sciences. His expertise is in animal reproduction and animal physiology. �I am not a zoo person, which gave me an objectivity� in conducting the investigation, he said. Roberts spoke with NEWSWEEK�s Brian Braiker about the panel�s findings at the National Zoo and its potential implications for other zoos. Excerpts:
NEWSWEEK: Can we talk about what you found at the National Zoo?
R. Michael Roberts: First of all, there were weaknesses in several areas. These were weakness generally in animal care, and this included preventive medicine, keeping up to date with immunizations, vaccinations [and] general care of the animals. Animals, depending upon the species, are on different sorts of schedules. Some animals are quite difficult to deal with if you can�t anesthetize them without endangering them. You can�t give them a full physical exam, for example. In general there had been a backlog in preventive care. And the zoo is moving toward correcting this backlog.R. Michael Roberts was 'surprised' by the extent of the zoo�s rodent problem
You mention preventive care, but there were deficiencies in routine maintenance, diet and pest control.
Yeah, the other thing was nutrition. There were problems with nutrition, poor communication between keepers and other staff and the veterinarians and also the nutritionists themselves. The zoo had a history of really not having full protocols for nutrition. Also, the zoo did not have a centralized commissary, which allows better control of the diets than you get when it�s decentralized. There can be oversight to what the animals are being fed.
You would think that this would be the zoo�s primary responsibility.
Well, it is. And in all fairness, everybody points the finger of blame of course at the current director. We weren�t asked to do that. We were asked to look at weaknesses in the interim report. What�s immediately wrong and can corrections be made? And we noted that the zoo is really turning itself around. It is changing the way business is done. Many of the problems we saw go back well before the present director was appointed. The state of the facilities indicates that this is a long-term problem at the National Zoo.
Do you feel that this has been politicized?
I can�t comment on that. My job isn�t to do that. One of the last recommendations we made is they get on quickly with their strategic plan so that they can really set performance standards. I think we acknowledge that the zoo staff is incredibly dedicated, they care about the animals and I think they feel let down by this report. What we�re really trying to [say] is that many of the problems were procedural. There was a whole constellation of events that led to some of the deaths that we report on. For example the other weakness was really just poor recordkeeping so that you really couldn�t track down things. And also the staff couldn�t find all the information that was needed on a particular animal. We noted there were real problems in archiving, recording and also being able to access information was very difficult.
Spelman, the outgoing director, has said she has fixed some of the more serious problems.
I think the zoo is on its way to fixing them, at least it�s put procedures in place that should lead to fixing them. The real question is whether those procedures get acted upon.
Are you familiar with other zoos and how this compares?
Again, we weren�t asked to comment on that. What we felt was that this report would be valuable not just to the National Zoo but to other zoos because, although we�re not certain, there�s a feeling that many of the problems we saw at the National Zoo might exist at other zoos, as well. We can�t say which zoos because we haven�t really done a science-based study. There is a general feeling that the problems that we noted at the National Zoo may not be unique to the National Zoo.
Can you name a zoo that really gets it right?
We don�t know because we�ve never looked at it. There are obviously some zoos that are highly successful. Zoos are a big business. They�re not just exhibiting animals. They�re concerned with conservation, science, research. They have to raise money. We didn�t look at that. We�ve looked at things like animal death. We looked at them at the National Zoo, tried to get some feeling as to whether the National Zoo had an unnaturally high death rate.
Well, it�s difficult to say. Our preliminary work would indicate nothing that was alarmingly different from other zoos of the same size. It depends on the collection, of course. The statistics are almost impossible to make sense of. If you have a tank of fish that die all of a sudden with a thousand fish in it, they all go in the statistics. And some animals live 30 years; some animals live two years. So it�s very, very difficult, depending on the species that are there and so on, to compare one zoo with another and the age of the collection. Animals get old and they die. They all die. But in many cases at the National Zoo, it�s clear that many of the animals were old. Many of them were euthanized and probably euthanized appropriately.
Are zoos good for animals?
That�s a philosophical question that people would argue one way or the other. I think that zoos are changing. They are no longer menageries. I think all zoos are moving, as much as finances and space will allow, to go to humane, naturalistic type of exhibits. In other words, moving away from the cage to open, spacious areas with plants and [a] mixture of animals cohabiting. The zoo also, although it�s not a Noah�s Ark, is probably a place where it will be the only hope where the species will survive. Some of the people on the extreme animal-rights issues will say, "So be it, you still don�t have the right to cage animals." But I think there is the other feeling that zoos are educational and they do help [us] appreciate wildlife and therefore become very conscious about conservation. So I think zoos can contribute toward humankind�s sensitivity toward animals and toward their plight in the wild. That�s my view.
Were you shocked at all by anything you discovered? The pests?
To say I was shocked, no. I think everybody was rather surprised by the extent of the rodent problem. But there are two issues you have to understand here. One is the red panda issue. They�ve put measures in place to correct the possibility of another episode like that. The zoo immediately took measures. But they have been sort of frozen in their options--they�ve been very nervous about resorting to a full-scale war on the rodents, and that will probably be required. They will have to use integrated pest management, a whole range of approaches to reduce the rodent population because you just cannot have that level of infestation. But the second thing is zoos are all plagued by pests because of the food that�s left around. Sometimes it�s a pretty good environment for the caged or captive animals, it�s also a pretty good place for mice and rats to live: there�s food; there�s shelter. There is an attempt, of course, to protect the animals, and therefore living within that protective environment can often allow large populations of rodents to build up. But we did appreciate the zoo is moving forward on this issue.
Your report mentioned �pockets of excellence� at the zoo. Can you give an example?
The first is we never saw any example of the staff not caring about the animals. There really is an intense interest in the animals and their well-being. There was no question in our minds that the zoo staff really cared about what went on and really took the side of the animals. There were issues [like] the crumbling facilities there. There was one for the sea lion; he was getting old and subsequently died. This was in a facility that was leaking, crumbling away and the staff were really going to enormous ends to try to make sure that the animal had the sort of enrichment that it needed to make life worthwhile. I don�t think any of us felt that the staff in any way was letting down the collection. What we felt was things had crumbled so long, [that] there had been a culture not so much of neglect of the animals, but neglect of the protocols.
Were these deaths avoidable?
I won�t say they were inevitable, but no one of these deaths can be attributed to one particular issue. In the case of the zebra, it was record keeping; it was a failure to understand what was required. There were nutritional problems; there were problems about keeping the animal warm. The animal died of hypothermia; people say it died of starvation. But secondary to that the animal probably wasn�t getting enough to eat. There were these instances, and they happen in human hospitals; they happen in a number of places where the circumstances, just everything, went wrong.
How would you characterize morale at the zoo?
Morale I think took a real beating from our report, and the zoo staff felt we had not emphasized the positive aspects of the zoo. Unfortunately it did come out as being a very negative review, but we do have a final report in the summer, and we�ll attempt there to cover some of the strengths of the zoo, at least within our task. We had a very limited task set for us by Congress. We weren�t asked to comment of the excellence of their research or on their educational facilities. We weren�t asked to comment on the fact of whether or not fiscal support of the zoo would be adequate. So we weren�t asked to assign blame. I think the staff at the zoo saw this as being a criticism of them. No one challenged our findings. I think we have tried to provide a science-based review.� 2004 Newsweek, Inc.
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