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Date: Feb. 25, 2004
Contacts: Bill Kearney, Director of Media Relations
Heather McDonald, Media Relations Assistant
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Interim Report Cites Deficiencies in Animal Care and Management,
Record Keeping, and Pest Control at National Zoo

WASHINGTON -- Shortcomings in care and management at the Smithsonian Institution's National Zoological Park are threatening the well-being of the animal collection, says a new interim report from the National Academies' National Research Council. The report was issued by a committee conducting a yearlong review of the zoo at the request of Congress.

The committee said that its initial findings address the "most pressing" issues and that it used some of the highly publicized deaths of larger animals at the zoo to illustrate deficiencies in animal care and management. In particular, the report examines the circumstances that led to the deaths of an elephant, two red pandas, and a zebra. In other instances, incomplete records or conflicting accounts from zoo personnel prevented the committee from drawing conclusions about whether an animal's death was linked to inadequate care or management.

"Our recommendations are aimed at helping the zoo avoid similar incidents in the future," said committee chair R. Michael Roberts, Curator's Professor of Animal Sciences, Biochemistry, and Veterinary Pathology at the University of Missouri, Columbia. "Some of the problems we identified are unique to the National Zoo, but many are common to other zoos as well."

The committee discovered that many animals at the National Zoo are not receiving preventive care in accordance with recognized standards. This includes failure to administer vaccinations, annual exams, and tests for infectious diseases in a timely manner. For example, tuberculosis in an elephant went undiagnosed because the zoo's veterinary staff failed to administer the annual test for the disease. The committee noted that a number of animals are scheduled to receive preventive care and urged the zoo to promptly eliminate the backlog of animals awaiting routine care.

Inadequate oversight of animal nutrition at the zoo has contributed to animal deaths, the committee added. The death of a zebra caused by hypothermia and malnutrition was preceded by poor communication among keepers, nutritionists, and veterinarians, as well as poor record keeping and a failure to adequately supervise the health of the animal, the committee concluded. In addition, diets fed to several primate species were found to be inconsistent with established guidelines; they contained inappropriate foods or too much or too little of several required nutrients. The committee urged the zoo to improve coordination of its animal nutrition program, in part by finalizing a plan to centralize food preparation. And the clinical nutrition program requires an experienced, qualified leader who is a permanent employee rather than a temporary one.

The committee also discovered a lack of documentation that the welfare of animals has been appropriately considered during the development and implementation of research programs or that complaints regarding the welfare of animals on exhibit were appropriately considered. Some animal research projects at the zoo are funded by the federal Public Health Service (PHS), which requires that a written "assurance" of adequate care for animals used in research be approved by the Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare of the National Institutes of Health. After a review of records, however, the committee could not confirm whether the Smithsonian, which oversees research at the zoo, had a valid assurance on file from 1997 to 2000, a period when PHS-funded research was taking place at the zoo. The committee said that there has been a lack of understanding within the National Zoo and Smithsonian about how to comply with federal regulations and PHS policy governing the use of animals in research. The zoo and Smithsonian should seek outside training in this area.

The zoo's internal committee for overseeing the treatment of exhibit and research animals -- the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee, or IACUC -- did not consistently fulfill its responsibilities and functioned in an "off and on again" manner, the committee added. When concerns about animal welfare were raised, IACUC appears to have spent most of its time trying to resolve conflicts among zoo staff instead of acting as an advocate for the animals. The National Zoo recently developed a new policy governing the function of IACUC, which the committee will evaluate further in its final report.

In addition, because of the lack of record keeping, the committee could not determine whether PHS-funded research at the zoo was being conducted in accordance with the Research Council's Guide for the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals, as mandated by PHS. A lack of documentation also prevented the committee from determining whether some PHS-funded research at the zoo as well as some research involving nonhuman primates was subject to the Animal Welfare Act or whether this research was being conducted in accordance with the standards outlined in the act. Further investigation is needed to determine whether research being conducted at the National Zoo is subject to the Animal Welfare Act, the committee said.

Zoo staff also repeatedly failed to comply with their own policies and procedures, according to the committee. On several occasions, for example, zoo officials failed to properly complete a form authorizing euthanasia and quarantine procedures, and protocols designed to prevent the introduction of pathogens may have been violated when staff-owned pets were brought onto zoo grounds for veterinary care.

The committee found the zoo's record keeping to be inconsistent. It cited one example where 16 weeks of records requested by the committee were lost. In addition, the committee called the zoo's standard practice of altering original medical records "unacceptable." In some instances records have been altered weeks or even years later. If erroneous entries are discovered or pertinent facts added later, they should be corrected by adding new notations, not by altering the original entry. The zoo must implement a new information management system -- even if it is not completely computerized at first -- and an expert should be hired to oversee the system, the committee suggested.

In addition, while the zoo has recently taken steps to improve its pest control, rats and mice can still be seen crossing public walkways in daylight. The committee said pest control at the zoo is inadequate, which poses a threat not only to the animals but also potentially to zoo employees and visitors. Despite positive steps taken by a new pest-management committee at the zoo, a more comprehensive plan is needed to bring pest populations down to acceptable levels and to maintain those levels using modern techniques, the committee said. The pest problem may be worsening because of the zoo's decision to limit the use of chemicals after two red pandas died from ingesting rat poison that was placed in their enclosure – a violation of the zoo's own protocol for approved chemical use in animal areas.

The lack of a strategic plan at the zoo is jeopardizing long-term goals, the committee added. It said that a strategic planning process recently initiated by the Smithsonian is a positive step, but that the zoo needs to develop a comprehensive strategy that incorporates its current plans for maintaining its animal collection plan and upgrading its facilities. On site visits, the committee quickly noted that the zoo's physical appearance is in a state of decline that obviously began several years ago.

Between 1993 and 2002, the annual mortality rate of animals at the National Zoo averaged 10.5 percent, ranging from 6.3 percent to 15.9 percent, according to the committee. It averaged about 7 percent between 2000 and 2002. The committee cautioned, however, that it is difficult to draw conclusions about whether zoo mortality rates are too high because mortality rates vary depending on the types of species as well as the age and health of individual animals. The committee does not yet have sufficient data to compare the National Zoo's mortality rate with that of other zoos, although the committee plans to conduct such a comparison in its final report if adequate information is available.

The committee focused its interim report on the zoo's main facility in Washington, D.C. The final report will expand on topics raised in the interim report and address other issues related to animal care and management at the zoo, including a more detailed analysis of animal care and management at the zoo's Conservation and Research Center in Front Royal, Va.

The study is being sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution. The National Research Council is the principal operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering. It is a private, nonprofit institution that provides science and technology advice under a congressional charter. A committee roster follows.

Pre-publication copies of Animal Care and Management at the National Zoo: Interim Report are available from the National Academies Press; tel. 202-334-3313 or 1-800-624-6242 or on the Internet at The cost of the report is $28.00 (prepaid) plus shipping charges of $4.50 for the first copy and $.95 for each additional copy. Reporters may obtain a copy from the Office of News and Public Information (contacts listed above).

[ This news release and report are available at ]

Division on Earth and Life Studies
Board on Agriculture and Natural Resources

Committee on the Review of Smithsonian Institution's
National Zoological Park and Conservation Research Center

R. Michael Roberts, Ph.D. 1 (chair)
Curator's Professor of Animal Science, Biochemistry, and Veterinary Pathology
University of Missouri

Joseph W. Alexander, D.V.M.
Vice President for Research and External Relations, and
Professor of Small Animal Surgery
College of Veterinary Medicine
Oklahoma State University

Bradford S. Bell, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
School of Industrial and Labor Relations
Cornell University
Ithaca, N.Y.

Kurt Benirschke, M.D.
Professor Emeritus
Department of Pathology
University of California Medical Center
San Diego

Janet Brannian, M.A.
Former Birdkeeper and Animal Technician
Kansas City Zoo, and
Adjunct Professor
Department of English
University of Sioux Falls
Sioux Falls, S.D.

Charles C. Capen, D.V.M., Ph.D. 2
Distinguished University Professor
Department of Veterinary Biosciences
Ohio State University

Rhetaugh Graves Dumas, Ph.D., R.N. 2
Former Deputy Director
National Institute of Mental Health; and
Vice Provost Emerita, Dean Emerita, and Lucille Cole Professor of Nursing Emerita
School of Nursing
University of Michigan
Ann Arbor

Lester Fisher, D.V.M.
Director Emeritus
Lincoln Park Zoo;
President and Founder,
LEF Co.; and
Vice President
Morris Animal Foundation

Harold F. Hintz, Ph.D.
Department of Animal Science
Cornell University
Ithaca, N.Y.

Paul W. Johnson, Ph.D.
Owner and Operator
Oneota Slopes Farm
Decorah, Iowa

Maxim Kiefer, C.I.H.
Atlanta Field Office, and
Senior Industrial Hygienist
National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Rebecca Remillard, D.V.M., Ph.D.
Staff Veterinarian and
Clinical Nutritionist
Angell Memorial Animal Hospital of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals

Bernard A. Schwetz, D.V.M. 2
Acting Director
Office for Human Research Protections
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
Rockville, Md.

Thomas Yuill, Ph.D.
Director Emeritus
Gaylord Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies
University of Wisconsin
Mapleton, Utah

Stephen L. Zawistowski, Ph.D.
Senior Vice President and
Science Adviser
American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals
New York City


Jamie S. Jonker, Ph.D.
Study Director

1 Member, National Academy of Sciences
2 Member, Institute of Medicine