- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 25, 2004

Just hours after a preliminary report found numerous problems at the National Zoo, its embattled director quit yesterday — and announced that another animal had died.

“I have pushed, pulled and prodded to move the zoo forward. But now, to accelerate the rate of our progress, I have concluded that it’s time for me to move on at the end of this year,” Lucy Spelman told a news conference. “I have become a lightning rod for too much attention. It’s become a distraction for the zoo and the Smithsonian [Institution],” which runs the zoo.

Dr. Spelman’s resignation followed the release earlier in the day of an interim report by the National Academies’ National Research Council, which is in the midst of a yearlong review of the zoo, requested by Congress.

The panel found deficiencies in care and management at the zoo, after several animal deaths in recent years. And members warned that the animals’ well-being is threatened.

“National Zoo staff have often failed to adhere to the zoo’s own policies and procedures for animal health and welfare,” said committee Chairman R. Michael Roberts.

Committee members said they found that many animals at the zoo were not receiving care in accordance with recognized standards. That included failure to administer vaccinations, annual exams and tests for infectious diseases in a timely manner.

Word of another zoo death this week came out at the news conference after Dr. Spelman was asked about the death of a lion. Dr. Spelman said surgery had been attempted to save the lion, but information she received indicated that the animal had a uterine infection, causing its death.

In 2002, a lion died owing to complications from anesthesia, and a bald eagle died after becoming infected with the West Nile virus.

“Lack of adequate nutrition oversight has contributed to animal deaths at the National Zoo,” the report said.

The death of a zebra in 2000 due to hypothermia and malnutrition was preceded by poor communication among keepers, nutritionists and veterinarians, as well as inadequate record keeping, it said.

But Dr. Spelman said the report does not give an accurate picture of the progress made in the past three years.

“The report does not address in any detail what I know to be exceptional animal care,” Dr. Spelman said.

The Smithsonian released a list of improvements it said were made at the zoo recently, including increased animal-care supervision and a new pest-control manager.

Other recent animal deaths include an orangutan, an elephant and two red pandas that died after eating poison intended for rats. The committee said pest control at the zoo remains inadequate — and potentially hazardous to animals, employees and visitors.

“While the zoo has recently taken steps to improve its pest control, rats and mice can still be seen crossing public walkways in daylight,” committee members said.

The panel said it does not have enough data to compare the zoo’s animal-mortality rate with other zoos. That information may be in the final report due this summer.

According to the committee, the zoo’s animal-mortality rate averaged 10.5 percent from 1993 to 2002 — and about 7 percent from 2000 to 2002. The zoo has about 2,600 animals. The committee noted that the fluctuation in the facility’s mortality rate is due in part to the aging of the animals.

Attracting nearly 3 million visitors a year — many of whom come to see the pandas — the National Zoo is one of the biggest tourist attractions in a city largely dependent on visitor dollars.

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