Video: Zoo chief steps aside

updated 2/25/2004 8:03:20 PM ET 2004-02-26T01:03:20

The embattled director of the National Zoo announced her resignation Wednesday after the release of a report critical of care at the park and a string of high-profile animal deaths over the past several years.

Even as she defended what she called “exceptional animal care,” zoo director Lucy Spelman said she has become “a lightning rod for too much attention.”

Her resignation becomes effective at the end of the year.

A National Academy of Sciences panel of veterinarians, zookeepers and others began investigating the zoo last year after several well-publicized animal deaths, including two red pandas that succumbed after eating rat poison buried in their yard by exterminators trying to get rid of rodents.

An interim panel report released Wednesday said many animals are not receiving adequate preventive care, including exams, vaccinations and tests for infectious diseases. It also faulted the zoo for shortcomings in the animal nutrition program, which the report said had contributed to deaths.

At a news conference earlier, panel chairman R. Michael Roberts declined to comment on the leadership of Spelman. He said there were failures at the zoo at all levels, in a number of areas.

“We have not attempted to assign blame, nor will we assign blame, to individuals,” said Roberts. “But we believe there has been a pervasive weakness at many levels within the system, ranging from the keeper level through management.”

The report said “a lack of adequate nutrition oversight has contributed to animal deaths” at the zoo. It cited the case of a zebra named Buumba that died of hypothermia and malnutrition in early 2000. Spelman was the chief veterinarian at the time.

The report said multiple failures — including poor communication among keepers and veterinarians, and inadequate supervision — preceded the zebra’s death.

The mortality rate at the zoo has dropped from just over 10 percent to about 7 percent in recent years, the report said. But Roberts said those rates were not compared to other zoos, though that is something the panel hopes to do before issuing its final report this summer.

The problems with preventive care at the zoo stretch back to 1998. “The committee found numerous failures to provide timely vaccinations, tuberculosis tests or physical exams,” said the report.

The panel did credit the zoo with taking steps in the past year to improve care, but it said more changes are needed. The report also faulted the zoo’s record-keeping, saying there have been “unacceptable” instances where records were altered weeks, even years, later.

The zoo is operating under a provisional accreditation from the American Zoo and Aquarium Association. The AZA will decide March 17 whether to extend that accreditation for the usual five-year term, something it declined to do last year.

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