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Director to Resign After Lapses Are Found at National Zoo

Times Staff Writer

The director of the National Zoo announced her resignation Wednesday, just hours after a National Academy of Sciences panel reported that lapses in care and management had contributed to widely publicized animal deaths at the institution and continued to endanger the animals and the people visiting them.

Dr. Lucy Spelman told a news conference that she had become a “lightning rod for too much attention” focused on the zoo, which is a part of the Smithsonian Institution. Her resignation takes effect at year’s end.

In March, after a series of articles in the Washington Post about the questionable circumstances surrounding the deaths of several mammals, a congressional committee ordered an investigation into care and management issues at the zoo. Among the dead animals were an elephant whose tuberculosis went undetected until it was fatal, two red pandas that ate rat poison buried in their enclosure, and a zebra that died of hypothermia and malnutrition.

In its interim report, a panel of veterinarians, zookeepers and others painted a dismal picture of the zoo, which attracts 2 million visitors annually to its leafy Rock Creek Park facility.

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Rats skitter across walkways in daytime; zookeepers routinely misplace, misfile or alter important records on animal care; and veterinarians lag far behind in providing the annual exams, vaccinations and infectious-disease testing needed to keep animals healthy, the report found.

Nutritional programs are so badly run that “lack of adequate nutrition oversight has contributed to animal deaths at the National Zoo,” the report said. Many problems are long-standing, the panel found, and Spelman -- the zoo’s chief veterinarian before being named to the top job in June 2000 -- was credited with taking steps to correct some of them.

But the report blamed many continuing problems on poor management and a failure of communication among staff at the zoo. Staff members often do not follow the zoo’s own procedures, the report said, noting: “In some cases these failures endanger the safety of the animal collection.”

The panel urged that several reforms be implemented immediately -- before delivery of its final report this summer -- to ensure the health and safety of the zoo’s animals.

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The failure to control rats and other pests “poses a potential threat to the animal collection, employees, and visitors to the National Zoo,” the report said. It noted that “rats and mice are present in animal areas and can be observed crossing public walkways in daylight,” and it observed that “considerable work will be required to ensure animal health and aesthetic quality of the Rock Creek Park.”

The zoo’s overhauled pest-management procedure, launched after the red pandas died in January 2003, “is showing signs of improvement” but “remains inadequate,” the report found.

In a joint statement, the chairman and the ranking member of the Committee on House Administration, which oversees the Smithsonian, welcomed Spelman’s resignation and called for reforms to begin immediately.

While problems at the zoo “go beyond a single person, a change in management is a good step towards improving public confidence in the zoo and strengthening its operations,” said Reps. Robert W. Ney (R-Ohio) and John B. Larson (D-Conn).

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Reached after Spelman announced her resignation, R. Michael Roberts, the panel’s chairman and a professor of veterinary pathology at the University of Missouri-Columbia, noted that the panel had not called for her to step down.

“You’re always sad when something like this happens,” he said. “I feel bad for her.”

Roberts added that he was “disappointed” by what the panel had found at the zoo.

“I do know, from personal experience in talking to zoo directors, that they are following the proceedings very carefully,” he said.

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“They want to be sure that they have not let standards drift, that they are maintaining high standards. They feel great sympathy [for Spelman]. They’re saying, ‘That could be me.’ ”

Some of the problems can be found at zoos across the nation, Roberts noted. “But the National Zoo is very much in the spotlight. So the deaths that occur at all zoos caught the attention of Congress and a very aggressive newspaper.”

The zoo’s provisional accreditation from the American Zoo and Aquarium Assn. expires next month.

The association will decide March 17 whether to grant the zoo the full five-year accreditation.

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