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The National Zoo's Summer of Discontent

After animal deaths, inquiry found an aging facility, and staff and budget woes. A return to greatness is promised.

August 03, 2003|Susannah Rosenblatt | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Visit the National Zoo these days, and the scenes are of summer as usual: A camel blinks slowly in the sun as it lounges on a bed of straw, the giant pandas munch blissfully on bamboo as staff members track a possible pregnancy, and swarms of children in shorts and sneakers crowd in for a glimpse of the seals' acrobatics. But in recent months, the zoo's behind-the-scenes activities have been attracting far more attention, much of it unwanted, than its animal stars.

Once among the world's preeminent zoos, the Smithsonian National Zoological Park -- the zoo's official name -- is now operating with only provisional accreditation, is the subject of congressional hearings and is grappling with negative publicity resulting from a string of animal deaths. The scrutiny has revealed an aging facility with a shrinking animal collection, the result of inadequate funding and years of neglect.

In January 2000, two of the zoo's zebras -- malnourished and lacking adequate warmth -- died of hypothermia. Then came the deaths of a number of other animals, including an orangutan, a lion, a seal, a hippopotamus, a white tiger and two giraffes, all attributed by zoo officials to illness, age or injury.

Last January, two red pandas died after rodent poison was placed in their enclosure to deal with a rat problem. On July 4, a fox from neighboring Rock Creek Park wriggled into a bald eagle exhibit, killing a bird that was unable to fly.

Lawmakers wanted answers from the zoo, which is a part of the Smithsonian Institution and receives federal funding -- almost $24 million this year.

In March, the House Administration Committee, which supervises the Smithsonian, held a hearing on the deaths. Later that month, the American Zoo and Aquarium Assn. refused to renew the zoo's accreditation for the usual five years, giving it a provisional one-year accreditation while problems are reviewed.

The association cited the zoo's crumbling buildings, miscommunication among management, stagnant animal collection, inadequate federal funding and the administrative inexperience of the zoo's director, Lucy H. Spelman. She was the zoo's head veterinarian when she was promoted to the top post in 2000 at the age of 37.

Despite the problems, Spelman is committed to leading the zoo out of its public relations morass and repairing a campus that opened in the late 1800s. "Our vision for the future National Zoo is to restore it to great zoo status," she told the congressional committee in March.

In her testimony, Spelman acknowledged that human error caused the deaths of the zebras and the red pandas, and told of personnel changes that were made in an effort to eliminate the management gaps that led to those and other deaths. A new position of general curator was created to provide greater oversight of the animal collection, she said, while departments and policy were changed to increase staff communication and accountability.

Based on information gleaned at the hearing, Congress requested an investigation of the zoo by the National Academy of Sciences, which advises the government on scientific issues. A 15-member committee will make unannounced visits to the zoo to "assess the quality and effectiveness of animal management, husbandry, and care," said the academy's spokesman, Bill Kearney. The panel will produce an interim report in six months and make final recommendations next summer, he said.

An inventory soon after Spelman became director found nearly one-third of the buildings, some of which are more than 75 years old, to be substandard, including the popular elephant and sloth exhibits.

In January, the Australia exhibit building was razed because of structural weaknesses, and the kangaroos and emus were relocated. The pool for the seals and sea lions was found to leak. Only a handful of exhibits -- including the high-profile giant panda and Amazonia exhibits -- passed muster.

"Many people don't realize the zoo is over 100 years old," Spelman said in an interview last week, adding that, in her opinion, the National Zoo should be renovating one of its 25 buildings each year.

"So many zoos ... that were built in the 1800s are dealing with infrastructure problems," said Jane Ballentine, spokeswoman for the American Zoo and Aquarium Assn. While no other zoo receives federal funding, many have struggled with budget problems, she said. The National Zoo, she noted, is among only 13 of the association's 176 member zoos that do not charge admission.

The San Diego Zoo's $100-million yearly budget comes from donations, memberships and a $19.50 adult entry fee, said spokeswoman Christina Simmons. That zoo has launched a $26-million renovation project for its ape house and other areas.

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