Embattled National Zoo director calls it quits after critical report

Zoo regains AZA accreditation following review
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Dr. Lucy H. SpelmanAn interim report by the National Academy of Sciences criticizing the animal care and management at the National Zoologic Park prompted zoo director Dr. Lucy H. Spelman to say she would resign at the end of the year.

The report, released Feb. 25, stated that the health of animals at the zoo, part of the Smithsonian Institution, is threatened by shortcomings in animal care and management, record keeping, pest management, and strategic planning.

The National Zoo has been dogged by controversy since the highly publicized deaths of animals in its collection.

But on March 17, the American Zoo and Aquarium Association seemed to soften the blow of the NAS report by reaccrediting the National Zoo for five-years. The accreditation means the zoo, after a detailed review and inspection process covering all aspects of its operations, either met or exceeded AZA standards, including veterinary care, physical facilities, and management.

Following an accreditation inspection in January 2003, the AZA chose to wait a year before considering the National Zoo's application to allow time for improvements to be made. AZA inspectors returned to the zoo in February 2004 and an accreditation commission later determined that the zoo had addressed all concerns raised during the previous inspection.

"The zoo is presently in a state of flux, with many changes taking place both internally and to the physical grounds," the commission report states. "It is critically important that forward momentum is maintained in all areas and on all levels at a pace that will see the zoo complete its strategic plan and facility renovations, as quickly as possible."

The AZA sought to clarify the apparent contradictory assessments by explaining that the accreditation commission's review was more recent and broader in scope than that of the National Academies.

"The commission was looking at a snapshot of the zoo as it is right now," said Jane Ballentine, AZA public affairs director. "The NAS report was looking at things that were, and we were looking at things as they are right now."

Ballentine said the commission did take the NAS report into account when considering the National Zoo's accreditation application.

Regaining AZA accreditation proves the National Zoo is much improved from the zoo of a year ago, Dr. Spellman said. Still, it didn't reverse her decision to step down. "I've concluded that it is time for me to move on at the end of this year. I've become a lightning rod for too much attention that has become a distraction for the zoo and the Smithsonian," she said the day the NAS report was made public.

For the rest of the year, Dr. Spelman will continue serving as director, overseeing the daily operations of the National Zoo, and helping guide the facility and staff through the transition to new leadership. She joined the National Zoo in 1995 as an associate veterinary medical officer. The Smithsonian's secretary, Lawrence M. Small, promoted Dr. Spelman to zoo director in June 2000 (see JAVMA, Aug. 1, 2000).

Small said Dr. Spelman helped set the zoo on the right course for the 21st century. He noted that the greatest facilities revitalization in the zoo's history is under way, more funds have been raised from public and private sources than ever before, and long-standing challenges are being addressed aggressively.

"We sincerely thank her for her unquestioned dedication to the zoo, which is once again demonstrated in her willingness to stay on until the end of the year while we search for a new director," Small said. The Smithsonian will convene a committee to conduct a nationwide search for a new zoo director.

Unlike most zoos, the National Zoo is supported by federal dollars. When two red pandas were accidentally poisoned in January 2003, the House of Representatives Committee on House Administration—which has oversight of the Smithsonian Institution—held a hearing in which questions were raised about the zoo.

The House committee requested a yearlong, science-based review of the care and management of the zoo animals by the National Academies. The Academies' National Research Council convened a committee of 15 veterinarians, zookeepers, and others, and charged them with focusing only on issues pertaining to animal management, husbandry, health, and care.

The committee published its findings in the interm report, in which the "most pressing" issues at the National Zoo's main facility in Washington, D.C., are addressed.

Circumstances surrounding the deaths of an elephant, two red pandas, and a zebra were used to illustrate deficiencies at the zoo. 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, PhD, professor of animal sciences, biochemistry, and veterinary pathology at the University of Missouri. "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 are not receiving preventive care in accordance with recognized standards. This includes failure to administer vaccinations, annual examinations, and tests for infectious diseases.

Inadequate oversight of animal nutrition 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.

The committee discovered a lack of documentation that the welfare of animals has been appropriately considered during the development and implementation of research programs and that complaints regarding the welfare of animals on exhibit were appropriately considered.

Some animal research projects at the zoo are funded by the Public Health Service, 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 had a valid assurance on file from 1997-2000.

Zoo staff repeatedly failed to comply with their own policies and procedures, according to the committee. 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. The committee called the zoo's standard practice of altering original medical records "unacceptable." In some instances, records were altered weeks or even years later.

Pest control at the zoo is inadequate and poses a threat not only to the animals but also to visitors and zoo employees, the committee found.

The lack of a strategic plan is jeopardizing the zoo's long-term goals, the committee added. A strategic planning process recently initiated by the Smithsonian is a positive step, the committee said, but the zoo needs to develop a comprehensive strategy that incorporates its current plans for maintaining its animal collection and upgrading its facilities.

This summer, the committee will issue a final report. It will expand on topics raised in the interim report and address other issues related to animal care and management at the zoo. Included will be a more detailed analysis of animal care and management at the zoo's Conservation and Research Center in Front Royal, Va.