December 13th, 2013
10:03 AM ET
10 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. Lisa

    They need to hire Jack Hanna~!

    December 13, 2013 11:21 am at 11:21 am |
  2. Another Voice

    Blaming these problems on the budget sounds like an excuse, although certainly the budget has probably taken a hit and they may have lost some good and experienced workers (although nobody has said that yet).

    This country has had budget problems before and the breadth of these problems sound more systemic than recent. At the moment, this sounds to me more like poor management and oversight.

    December 13, 2013 11:22 am at 11:22 am |
  3. Mymy

    I thought the article was about congress but when I actually read the article I noticed many similarities. A couple of animals bashing their heads into walls and hurting themselves... a couple of animals try to escape but are recaptured and put back in their cages. Sounds like stories involving Bachmann, Boehner, Cantor, Cruz, Paul.

    December 13, 2013 11:24 am at 11:24 am |
  4. Warren

    It's Obama's fault....

    Where is Issa??

    December 13, 2013 11:24 am at 11:24 am |
  5. Justin

    Clearly many of you have never been to the National Zoo. Charging admission is physically impossible – there is no single entrance, the zoo is integrated into the surrounding community, and attempting to build entrance points would cause enormous spillover into surrounding areas and major roads. Furthermore, the idea that there is no entrance fee is not technically correct. If you want to park on zoo grounds you have to pay for parking or pay an annual Friends of the Zoo pass. While certainly many people walk in, often due to Metro nearby, many many people pay an entrance fee because of parking.

    With respect to potential animal abuse, this is probably directly related to Congressional cuts. Expecting the same level of services was always foolish. Moreover, the word "potential" still remains in play, as this could be no more than an unfortunate series of events all happening at the same time. Accidents happen at zoos, just as they do in all businesses.

    December 13, 2013 11:25 am at 11:25 am |
  6. SaraFly

    As a taxpayer I am appalled. Does the zoo want more of my money or can I ask them to get rid of some of the animals so there's more money to go around. I think the later is better.

    December 13, 2013 11:26 am at 11:26 am |
  7. Inciteful

    The National Zoo should charge for admission. Even if the charge were nominal (e.g., $2), it would help fund zoo operations. This zoo is not readily accessible by the majority of Americans. Those who visit the zoo should be charged something for the privilege. There should be at least a nominal entrance fee to all U.S. national parks, et al. Again, most people are not in a financial position to avail themselves of these operationally tax-funded resources.

    December 13, 2013 11:28 am at 11:28 am |
  8. wildbunny

    people please speak up!! I'm reading how folks visited the zoo and KNEW something was wrong by how the animals acted or looked and it's our responsibility as stewards to SPEAK UP for these animals.

    Find someone in management and TELL THEM what you see and protest AS LOUD AND LONG as you can until someone does something and to hell with them if they think you are being too sensitive.

    December 13, 2013 11:30 am at 11:30 am |
  9. Sniffit

    "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???"

    And the prize for today's worst analogy and largest leap in logic goes to........

    December 13, 2013 11:31 am at 11:31 am |
  10. oggidoggi

    HMMM, I believe they were the test case for ObamaCare????

    December 13, 2013 11:32 am at 11:32 am |
  11. JC

    It is a disgrace.

    December 13, 2013 11:33 am at 11:33 am |
  12. perennial2

    The neglect and mistreatment of helpless animals at DC's National Zoo has been going on for 20+ years. Every single time I read anything with National Zoo in its headline, it's about the untimely death of one these magnificent wild animals left in the care of these humans and on whose shoulders is the 100% responsibility for ensuring they are cared for to the highest standards. If the Smithsonian and Nat Zoo cannot do that – and it seems they cannot – then find new homes for these creatures at zoos around the nation, where they can be soundly nurtured and medically cared for. It is at the edge of a crappy neighborhood, which brings its own challenges to the safety and well-being of the animals, including annual shootings by teen thugs inside and just outside the Zoo.

    December 13, 2013 11:33 am at 11:33 am |
  13. John

    "[Brady] wants to hear specifically how budget cuts could have led to this situation" – so, instead of an open-ended investigation into what led to the situation, he just wants to hear arguments that budget cuts were responsible. Nice.

    December 13, 2013 11:34 am at 11:34 am |
  14. Atoadaso

    I'm sure it is all Obama's fault. Look, anyone who visits zoos, rodeos, roadside zoos, bear pits so common in the South, rides elephants at Renaissance festivals (Maryland is a prime example), puts their kids on pony rides or takes buggy rides, or goes to circuses and wretched places like Sea World supports cruelty in many forms. If you don't believe it Google it and look for the truth, not what you want to hear. If you want your kids to enjoy wildlife get a 60 inch HD TV. We need to take all the money we are putting into these horrific places and set aside natural habitats for the animals. I'd rather be a free monkey in Africa and take my chance with the poachers that sitting in some dirt pit for 15 years watching people throw peanuts at me. And I think I would rather end up in a slaughter house (many cart horses do) that spend my life hauling fat people around cities. The only way to stop the atrocities that you can not see is to stay clear of all of the above. Teach your children that animals are not here for our entertainment. Over 20 animals died in the making of the last Hobbit. Does your child know that? People will spend hours looking for a recipe but not one a second looking for the truth about how animals suffer because of our ignorance.

    December 13, 2013 11:34 am at 11:34 am |
  15. Anonymous

    So... the govt cannot run a zoo, a post office, the DMV, cannot pass a budget, cannot spend within the means of the budgets they passed previously, paid ~ $1 billion (to a non-American company) to build a website that does not work, and is $16 trillion in debt. Now please tell me why you want the govt taking over the healthcare system???

    December 13, 2013 11:41 am at 11:41 am |
  16. WTHWTH

    So the federal government can't properly manage a zoo.

    But don't worry – when they take over your health care and force you into a single-payer system, those same people with operate with 100% responsibility and efficiency!

    December 13, 2013 11:42 am at 11:42 am |
  17. Take My Money

    So... the govt cannot run a zoo, a post office, the DMV, cannot pass a budget, cannot spend within the means of the budgets they passed previously, paid ~ $1 billion (to a non-American company) to build a website that does not work, and is $16 trillion in debt. Now please tell me why you want the govt taking over the healthcare system???

    December 13, 2013 11:44 am at 11:44 am |
  18. phantom2

    The country needs to cut funding to non-essential programs. Those non-essential programs should be allowed to prove their worth to the people by raising funds through non-federally funded means. Charge admission like every other zoo. Fix your problems, and let's move on to figuring out how we are going to make the tough cuts (Defense spending and social programs).

    December 13, 2013 11:44 am at 11:44 am |
  19. Sniffit

    ""[Brady] wants to hear specifically how budget cuts could have led to this situation" – so, instead of an open-ended investigation into what led to the situation, he just wants to hear arguments that budget cuts were responsible. Nice."

    That's obviously not intended to convey that it's the ONLY thing he wants to hear about, just that it's of particular concern. If you think there's something crazy about watching budget cuts get made, followed by hearing of a massive decline in performance and then drawing the conclusion that there should be some investigation into whether the two things are related causally, then you cray cray.

    December 13, 2013 11:44 am at 11:44 am |
  20. Mike

    Let the animals go. Release them. Wild animals do not beling in a cage.

    December 13, 2013 11:45 am at 11:45 am |
  21. peavey

    Was their budget recently cut?

    How many caretakers were laid off?!

    December 13, 2013 11:46 am at 11:46 am |
  22. Sunny

    It's hard for an outsider to know what's happening there ... but never hearing of animals getting injured or escaping from other zoos? Come on! Someone is exaggerating just a teeny bit. The animal that escaped from the National Zoo was Rusty, a red panda. Red pandas are agile and arboreal, and notorious escape artists. In just the last few years, red pandas have escaped from the Dresden Zoo (2012), the London Zoo (2009), a wildlife park in Scotland (2008), the Virgina Zoo - twice - in 2007, the Knoxville Zoo (2007), and the Birmingham Nature Centre (2005).

    If there are problems, let's fix them, and if they're underfunded, well, shame on Congress. But let's not claim they're irresponsible for something that's pretty commonplace.

    December 13, 2013 11:46 am at 11:46 am |
  23. cosmo

    Zoo is a Smithsonian Institute, no charge at any Smithsonians

    December 13, 2013 11:49 am at 11:49 am |
  24. Rudy NYC

    Inciteful

    The National Zoo should charge for admission.
    ---------------
    The already do, and the annual fee is due every April 16.

    December 13, 2013 11:52 am at 11:52 am |
  25. just saying

    anybody running a private zoo would have federal agents and inspectors crawling up and down their backs on a regular basis. heavy fines and penalities for violations. but because this is run by the government, they can get away with not taking care of these animals properly?

    if this is the case then the government needs to get out of the zoo business. they are as incompetent at that as they are at everything else they do. stop making the animals suffer because of your incompetence!

    December 13, 2013 11:54 am at 11:54 am |
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