Human error may have contributed to the deaths of at least six rare animals within the last three years at the National Zoo and its research facility in Virginia, in addition to those of two red pandas accidentally poisoned by pesticide and two zebras killed by hypothermia and malnutrition, according to interviews and zoo records.
The evidence of a link between human error and additional deaths at the world-renowned institution contradicts public statements by zoo officials, including Director Lucy H. Spelman, that pointed to the zoo's increasingly geriatric animal population as the major cause of animal losses.
Some animal-rights advocates said the deaths raise questions about whether the zoo is plagued by systemwide weaknesses. A congressional panel has summoned Spelman and other officials for an oversight hearing today.
Zoo officials acknowledge that human error killed the red pandas and zebras and said they have taken steps to prevent a recurrence of the problems. But documents and interviews with zoo staff indicate that human error has been a factor in the deaths of at least six other animals.