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Date: Jan. 19, 2005
Contacts: Bill Kearney, Director of Media Relations
Vanee Vines, Senior Media Relations Officer
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National Zoo Has Improved Some Areas of Animal Care and Management,
But Persistent Problems Should Be Remedied

WASHINGTON -- The Smithsonian Institution's National Zoological Park has made some noticeable improvements in the past year in zoo operations and animal care, but problems in areas such as staff training, workplace culture, and strategic planning still need to be addressed, says a new report from the National Academies' National Research Council. This final report was issued by a committee that conducted a yearlong review of the zoo at the request of Congress. Several deaths among the zoo's larger animals – including a lion and two red pandas – had placed the organization under scrutiny.

Last February the committee released an interim report primarily focused on the zoo's main facility in Washington, D.C.; that study cited deficiencies in animal care and management, record keeping, and pest control. The zoo is making good-faith efforts to correct those problems, says the final report, which evaluates progress and looks at new issues, including operations at the zoo's Conservation and Research Center (CRC) in Front Royal, Va. For example, appropriate documentation regarding animal welfare has been submitted to federal regulatory agencies, and managers have made substantial strides in developing a standardized, electronic record-keeping system for zookeepers. Administrators have also eliminated over the past six months a backlog of preventive care needed by animals at the Washington facility, and created at both sites a monthly schedule for routine medical examinations, tests, and vaccinations – as well as a way to track staff performance. Still, more improvements are needed at the zoo to tackle deterioration that stems from long-standing, systemic problems.

"After a decade-long decline in facilities, animal collection, and the quality of animal programs, the National Zoo has been through a year of substantial upheaval as it tries to reverse some long-standing negative trends," said committee chair R. Michael Roberts, Curators' Professor of Animal Sciences, Biochemistry, and Veterinary Pathology at the University of Missouri, Columbia. "Many solid first steps have been taken, but the turnaround is far from complete."

To assess the overall quality of care given to animals that have died at the National Zoo since 1998, the committee evaluated publicized deaths as well as a random sample of large-animal deaths – 48 cases altogether. The scientific assessment revealed that, in a majority of the cases, animals received appropriate care throughout their lives. And that finding held true in the committee's evaluation of the subset of 10 randomly selected deaths of large animals at the Washington facility, which suggests that publicized deaths there were not indicative of wider, undiscovered problems with animal care.

Evidence of inadequate care was found in a minority of cases, including some of the publicized deaths at the main facility, the committee said. The death of a Grevy's zebra caused by hypothermia and malnutrition at the Washington site, for example, was preceded by poor communication among keepers, nutritionists, and veterinarians, as well as poor record keeping and failure to adequately supervise the animal's health.

Gaps in record keeping were uncovered at both sites in 17 of the 48 cases, making it difficult for the committee to form conclusions in some instances. The CRC should adopt new record-keeping systems in parallel with current efforts at the Washington facility; widespread deficiencies in record keeping were found in the center's veterinary department. Moreover, the zoo should take immediate steps to clarify the actions, procedures, and observations that must be included in each type of record created by animal-care, veterinary, and nutrition staff members at both locations, the report says.

The zookeeping staff desperately needs training, the report emphasizes. The zoo should immediately develop and implement animal-care training programs to ensure that people who are directly responsible for the well-being of its animal collection are adequately prepared and competent. The program should include written husbandry protocols for all species; a uniform body of information that new keepers would receive while in training, and tests of how well they know it; plus a formal system for documenting compliance with training requirements. Assistant curators – managers who are responsible for directly overseeing staff members who provide daily care of animals – also should undergo some form of management training. Overall, the zoo still needs to address how it will train all employees uniformly on zoo procedures.

Likewise, the zoo should further clarify the roles and responsibilities of all staff members. In particular, it should identify people who are accountable for making decisions and ensuring that policies and procedures are followed, the report says. All supervisors, including senior management, should understand that they are accountable for management failures that allow repeated lapses or poor performance in any aspect of the zoo's operation.

In almost every case where inadequate care of animals was evident, there had been a lack of communication and collaboration among keepers, veterinarians, nutritionists, senior managers, and curators. Individual departments of the zoo seldom worked together, disrupting the system of checks and balances and allowing substandard care to occur, the committee found. A team approach to animal care is imperative, especially since the National Zoo's animal collection is largely geriatric and therefore more likely to suffer negative consequences from lapses in care.

On the whole, the zoo should continue efforts to facilitate communication among and within departments, and to improve communication between different levels of the organization, the report says. Even within individual departments, units tend to be isolated from one another. The nature and effectiveness of internal communication affect the organization's viability and the quality of animal care and management.

A strategic planning process that was initiated by the Smithsonian is a positive step, the report adds. However, the zoo should develop a more detailed, comprehensive strategy that incorporates operational plans to meet short-term goals and links plans to upgrade facilities with those to acquire animals. The zoo operated without a strategic plan or its equivalent for many years -- a weakness that may have contributed to declines in the animal collection and facilities during the 1990s.

The committee reviewed several measures that the zoo put in place to monitor the effectiveness and timeliness of recent changes. For example, the report notes that the zoo's nutrition staff has developed a plan to centralize food preparation for animals at the Washington facility and to track progress in that area. The interim study found that inadequate oversight of animal nutrition had contributed to animal deaths. The final report also discusses areas where additional performance measures are needed. The pathology department, for instance, should track how well it handles its caseload and other duties, and should ensure that, until a permanent supervisory pathologist is hired, the department has adequate staff.

Over the past five years, the CRC's Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) actively reviewed all animal research protocols that it received. However, it failed to perform other federally mandated tasks, such as semiannual inspections of the center. Also, the IACUC did not clearly understand that its mandate is to safeguard the well-being of all animals in the CRC collection -- not only those used in research. The Smithsonian and the zoo should ensure that the center's IACUC works in a timely and thorough manner.

The zoo's occupational health and safety program for employees has formal policies on good safety practices, the report adds, but these policies have not been followed consistently. For example, access to two-way radios was not always available to primate zookeepers when they fed great apes. Better enforcement of safety policies is needed. Safety department workers who are trained in occupational health and infectious disease issues also should determine, with input from unit supervisors, appropriate health tests and immunization requirements for zoo employees. And the Smithsonian should fix problems in the employee health clinic at the Washington facility, which is poorly equipped for emergency care and incapable of comprehensively monitoring workers' health issues, among other shortcomings.

The study was 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.

Animal Care and Management at the National Zoo: Final Report is available on the Internet at Reporters may obtain a copy from the Office of News and Public Information (contacts listed above).

[ This news release and the report are available at ]

Division on Earth and Life Studies
Board on Agriculture and Natural Resources
Institute for Laboratory Animal Research

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

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

Joseph W. Alexander, D.V.M.
Interim Vice President for Research, 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
Prairie Village, Kan.

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., F.A.A.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

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.

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
Holliston, Mass.

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

Thomas Yuill, Ph.D.
Director Emeritus, and
Professor 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


Jennifer Obernier, Ph.D.
Study Director

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