December 13th, 2013
10:03 AM ET
4 months ago

Report shows animal care 'severely lacking' at Smithsonian National Zoo

Updated 7:27 p.m., 12/13/2013

Washington (CNN) – A blistering internal report released this week is revealing big problems at the National Zoo and prompting a Congressional review.

On Wednesday, an endangered horse rammed into a fence inside its barn. A gazelle and an antelope-like animal broke their necks the same way. And a hog died from possible malnutrition.

Last month a zebra severely injured an animal keeper. Earlier this year Rusty the red panda got out, and a vulture escaped its enclosure. Both were recaptured.

"You don't hear this happening at zoos across the country. It certainly shouldn't be happening here at our National Zoo," Cathy Liss, president of the Animal Welfare Institute, said.

A safety inspector with the zoo said human error was the cause of the zebra attack, according to CNN affiliate WJLA. Gates were not properly closed between the zebra's stall and the yard where the keeper was working, leading the two to be in the same enclosure. A nearby gazelle was apparently spooked by the attack and ran into a fence, breaking its neck.

An internal investigation of the Cheetah Conservation Station, which houses cheetahs and other African savanna animals, found "animal care and overall organization, accountability, follow-up and communication are severely lacking."

But Pamela Baker-Masson, a spokesperson for the National Zoo, told CNN, "We never compromise safety and well-being of animals."

Officials point out that the zoo was again accredited in September by the Association for Zoos and Aquariums "after an extensive and rigorous review."

As for the deaths or escapes of the animals, officials say they've taken steps to prevent repeat episodes. The budget may also be partly to blame. The zoo does not charge admission, and Congress has cut $2 million over the past few years.

"This is where we look at ourselves very carefully, and we have to review what resources are available," Baker-Masson said.

A spokesperson for Ranking Member of the House Administration Committee Robert Brady said the Congressman has scheduled a briefing with Smithsonian officials to assess the problems.

"[Brady] wants to hear specifically how budget cuts could have led to this situation, and will offer additional comment after those discussions," the spokesperson said.

Some animal welfare advocates point out there've been no problems with the Zoo's star attractions, like the giant pandas.

The panda cubs get naming ceremonies, and the newest tigers receive around-the-clock attention.

"The lesser-known species, the less charismatic species aren't getting the attention that they clearly need," Liss said.

And they're giving the National Zoo attention it clearly doesn't want.

- CNN's Ashley Killough and Mary Grace Lucas contributed to this report.


Filed under: Washington D.C.
soundoff (165 Responses)
  1. Lou

    Congress should be ashamed; just one more example of their ineptitude. I'd rather see our tax money go to animals than corporate welfare like big oil? Why do they still get freakin' tax breaks? Not to mention all the breaks of the top 1%. Somehow we aren't talking about that anymore.

    December 13, 2013 11:01 am at 11:01 am |
  2. Tutuvabene

    They need to do what other zoo's do, such as having a "friends of the zoo" fundraising organization, hold fee based publicity activities such as "a night out at the zoo," etc, in addition to an admission charge. Seems like the Smithsonian, as a whole, needs to collect admission fees to its facilities to improve the experience.

    December 13, 2013 11:04 am at 11:04 am |
  3. "You can keep your plan, PERIOD." -- Lie of the Year from the Liar of the Century

    Rudy NYC
    Sarah
    If budget is a problem, they just need to charge admission like every other zoo in the country. I'd rather pay admission to get in than to have animals receive inadequate care due to lack of funding.
    -----–
    If it's a national park, then isn't it supposed to be free?
    --

    Interesting question.... Do all the people that work there work for 'free'? Is all the food the animals eat 'free'? Is their medical treatment 'free'? The concept of 'free' exists only in the minds of those not paying for what they are receiving. There are actual costs that ARE being paid by somebody, namely the USA taxpayers.

    People going to the National Zoo should pay something for it. Even if it was $5 a person, that is less than the cost of a happy meal or a Starbucks coffee and would go to properly care for these animals. We owe it to the animals to take propoer care of them.

    December 13, 2013 11:04 am at 11:04 am |
  4. just asking

    Terry B.
    Hopefully one day another species will begin showing "humans" in their zoo, then perhaps we'll all understand the concept itself.
    --

    you mean like jails???

    December 13, 2013 11:06 am at 11:06 am |
  5. yolanda

    @Rudy NYC, Yes, it is supposed to be "free" , but unfortunately that is not the case. Go to Yellowstone and find that it costs $25 per car, or in the winter the charge is $20 per snowmobile. We are hit twice for the use of "our" parks. Once through taxes, and then again when we use them. The good news is that we are blessed with some beautiful national treasures that are available for all citizens (with the financial means) to enjoy.

    December 13, 2013 11:07 am at 11:07 am |
  6. NNN

    Sounds like a typical government operation, lots of office politics and absolutely no consideration at all given to performance. The zoo should be shut down, move the animals to other zoos, get rid of the employees. Government operation has become synonymous with atrocity in this county, it's long past due to start abolishing activities with long standing horrendous performance track records.

    December 13, 2013 11:07 am at 11:07 am |
  7. Sniffit

    "Hopefully one day another species will begin showing "humans" in their zoo, then perhaps we'll all understand the concept itself."

    Wait...I thought a magic man who lives in the sky was keeping us in his zoo...

    December 13, 2013 11:08 am at 11:08 am |
  8. Rebecca

    Well, Look at the way they treat people. It's not such a small leap between the Zoo animals and US citizens. Do what you want until you get caught. The new or old American way?

    December 13, 2013 11:08 am at 11:08 am |
  9. Sniffit

    "Hopefully one day another species will begin showing "humans" in their zoo, then perhaps we'll all understand the concept itself."

    Wait...I thought a magic man who lives in the sky was keeping us in his zoo...

    ...and if you ask me, the conditions are freekin terrible....

    December 13, 2013 11:09 am at 11:09 am |
  10. Aeon the Terrible

    Research and knowledge of animal immunity, metabolism, nutrient requirements, and behavior are severely lacking in ALL zoos, animal refuges, and Livestock Production, as a whole. Certainly budget cuts can cause management problems, but the situation is much larger. There have been several stories, in the news recently, which point directly to the ignorance and inadequacies of animal care!

    December 13, 2013 11:10 am at 11:10 am |
  11. mary jo Niles

    Interesting that this report is out. I most recently was in DC and I had two places earmarked to go in between some downtime. One of which was the zoo. I was excited and rather child like about my upcoming adventure.I had heard so much about OUR zoo and the pandas were there!!
    What I saw and experienced was nothing less than depressing,embarrassing and sad...the place was not well kept or maintained. It looked like a downtrodden farm versus a national zoo. What bothered me most were th naimlas(and mind you I am far from an expert) however they looked sad and forlorn..some of them looked very malnourished and that bothered me the most..when I left that day I felt depressed and sad..not the way a zoo should make you feel...a sad commentary for us!

    December 13, 2013 11:10 am at 11:10 am |
  12. Sandra Kennedy

    Its absurd that they charge no admission at all to defray costs. That's a luxury no one can afford. It is appalling to read about this substandard treatment of animals. I hate the idea of zoos anyway, but if they are necessary, then it is important for humans to act responsibly to provide decent levels of animal care. Too bad this zoo is Congressionally funded. With the kind of budget cutting and general inability of Congress to have an intelligent approach to anything, the animals are at the mercy of the dysfunctional humans. At least start charging admission and get your act together.

    December 13, 2013 11:10 am at 11:10 am |
  13. babs

    This lack of care is not relegated to just the National Zoo. Tragic as it may be, I've seen other zoos in the same or even worse shape. I've seen a Kudu hauled out in a front end loader when he died of poor nutrition. I've seen big cats crippled due to a lack of proper nutrition. I've known keepers who were injured due to unsafe encloses and not following protocols. I've seen escapes...once having to take cover in a small pump house as a leopard roamed free, zoo neighbors calling when animals escaped and turned up in their yards, the zoo staff totally unaware there had been and escape. I did visit the National Zoo expecting to see an exemplary facility and was horrified to find it was run down, kept animals in unsafe enclosures, et cetera. For the most part, the boots on the ground, the keepers, do care and some become very attached. It's not the keepers, it's the management, the lack of adequate budgets, and trying to 'make do' when making do doesn't work. And, yes, it is long past time for us to rethink the concept of zoos and the keeping of exotic animals. As for certification by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, it's a joke. I know of a large, popular aquarium that has lost many marine mammals for various reasons yet it is certified by the AZA and is busy restocking to replace the marine mammals and fish that have died under its care. The AZA also certifies zoos where elephants are painfully crippled from standing on concrete their entire lives so how much is a certification by the AZA worth? Little to nothing.

    December 13, 2013 11:11 am at 11:11 am |
  14. Realityblowz

    Let the animals roam the halls of the White House, and place Congress into the zoo. That would be an improvement for D.C.

    December 13, 2013 11:12 am at 11:12 am |
  15. leigh

    Rebecca – people have free will and can make their own decisions – bad or good is up to them. The US government is not in place to spoon feed life to people, although many would love it to be that way. These animals have no say, no control, no choice.

    December 13, 2013 11:14 am at 11:14 am |
  16. Brian

    If our government can't even take care of animals how are they going to treat humans under Obamacare....

    December 13, 2013 11:15 am at 11:15 am |
  17. Allen

    Just another example of things the government should not be involved in. Privatize it and let it be run properly.

    December 13, 2013 11:16 am at 11:16 am |
  18. Paul

    I go to the National Zoo a few time each year. I am a "Friends of the National Zoo" member. I have often seen things at the zoo I do not understand. I think a few of the people posting here have made valid points on care and accommodations for the animals. Some animals at the zoo get better care because they are the "Star Attractions". Most any animal will do better with a companion and other animal simulations such as interaction with different species as they would in the wild. Segregating animals that are do not threaten each other makes no sense at all. I have never known a Zebra to be a threat to a Elephant or vise-verse. Knowledgeable and empathetic people need to be hired to work the zoo and not just some Joe-Sh-mow off the street. The National Zoo needs to re-think how it handles and cares for it's creatures. It is the NATIONAL ZOO, the standards for care and nurturing of these animals should be second to none.

    December 13, 2013 11:16 am at 11:16 am |
  19. nuclear mike

    Seems the Federal health care does not even work for the National Zoo...so why would any of us expect ObamaCare to be any better for us on the other side of the bars???

    December 13, 2013 11:18 am at 11:18 am |
  20. Josh

    It does cost $20 to park and $5 for a hot dog.

    The problem is they have government employees. When you have government employees, it is hard to fire them when they do a poor job.

    December 13, 2013 11:18 am at 11:18 am |
  21. Eardley Ham Woodbury, MN

    Beyond endangered species recovery/replication there is no justification for zoos. No matter how well-intentioned or exotically designed, no zoo can possible provide an animal with an environment anywhere near its natural one. The animal is still in a cage.

    December 13, 2013 11:19 am at 11:19 am |
  22. DBMO

    Those of you thinking they should charge need to stop and think about that for a minute. Since when has the government charged people for something that the money has actually RETURNED to the place they were paying? It doesn't. Congress would simply continue to fund the same amount they always have and steal the admissions for other projects. That won't help. (and FYI the St. Louis Zoo is also free, so not all zoos in the country charge)

    Congress simply needs to be put to the fire to continue to fund the zoo where welfare of the animals is solely our responsibility. The cuts need to stop and money needs to be put back to return the level of care to what it should be.

    Preservation of species is very important and the research done at zoos world wide provide a great service. And until we as a species stop destroying the habits of every living creature here, we need to provide them a safe place in zoos.

    December 13, 2013 11:19 am at 11:19 am |
  23. Knucklehead

    After an in-depth study, Congress decided to cut the National Zoo's budget 10% to address this problem.

    December 13, 2013 11:19 am at 11:19 am |
  24. Knucklehead

    Those freaking government animals can't take care of themselves...

    December 13, 2013 11:20 am at 11:20 am |
  25. Marty

    Didn't I just read an article where Congressmen and Senators spend $50,000.00 on a portrait? How about we spend the money at the Zoo instead!!

    December 13, 2013 11:21 am at 11:21 am |
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