- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 10, 2002

Six large mammals have died at the National Zoo this year, and officials attribute most of the deaths to the increasing number of aging animals in captivity.
The most recent death occurred last week when Bikita, an 8-year-old cheetah, was put to sleep after developing chronic kidney failure.
The zoo's only white tiger, Taj, was put to sleep in October after he developed osteoarthritis. A Kodiak bear died of cancer, and a seal died of complications caused by old age.
"The majority of the animals who died are geriatric," zoo veterinarian Dr. Suzan Murray said yesterday. "We have had a lot of older animals in recent years because animals are living a lot longer."
However, she said, as animals live longer they develop more diseases related to old age and need more medical care.
Dr. Murray also said animals are living longer primarily because of advancements in medical science.
The two other deaths at the zoo this year were of younger giraffes that died suddenly of digestive problems. Griff, an 18-year-old female, died in September, and Ryma, a 17-year-old male, died in February.
Because they were relatively young the average life span is about 28 years their deaths prompted a study of the dietary habits of giraffes at the zoo.
Still, officials are not rushing to fill up the empty cages.
Dr. Ben Beck, the zoo's associate director, said a male giraffe is expected to arrive next week from another East Coast zoo to join a female giraffe.
But he also said director Lucy Spelman is more concerned about caring for the animals already in the zoo.
"She believes we have to do well by the animals we already have," Dr. Beck said.
He acknowledged that zoo officials are planning to add animals but said it was too early to disclose specifics.
"It is a very deliberative plan," he said. "We will ask questions like, 'Do we really need new giraffes? What kinds of sub-species do we need? Do we want to breed or exhibit them?'"
The zoo, founded in 1889, is one of the oldest in the country and gets 2 million to 3 million visitors annually.
Its collection includes 3,200 specimens, representing 450 species from around the world, many of them threatened or endangered.
But officials say inadequate funding during the past several years has left the zoo with a shrinking staff, deteriorating facilities and inadequate infrastructure.
Congress provides the zoo with about 70 percent of its funds and is projected to give $24.3 million for operating costs in fiscal 2003.
Most of the zoo's donations are raised by Friends of the National Zoo, a nonprofit group of residents from the surrounding Cleveland Park area. Last year, the group raised $4.1 million, said its director, Clinton Fields.
Still, zoo officials say, the amount falls short of their needs.
"A remarkably small amount of money is spent on the National Zoo compared to other leading zoos," Dr. Spelman wrote in the September-October issue of FONZ's publication, ZooGoer. "With the progressive deterioration of our physical facilities, we have lost our 'great zoo' status," she said.

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