December 13th, 2013
10:03 AM ET
12 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. BJNJ

    Notice how obama's lack of executive experience filters down in his administration. Lack of organization, lack of accountability. Notice how Sibelius dove under the rug. The only defense that the lackeys have is silence.

    December 13, 2013 01:18 pm at 1:18 pm |
  2. Hex

    It's cheap to go to the Houston Zoo so there's no excuse here. You have to pay to park ect ect.

    December 13, 2013 01:22 pm at 1:22 pm |
  3. Steffan

    Fix the problem now!

    December 13, 2013 01:24 pm at 1:24 pm |
  4. Key Typer

    Our national zoo is a disgrace. I am ashamed to go there. The reason the animals have no where to roam is b/c there are crappy vendor stands EVERYWHERE. They have ads and posters plastered everywhere you look. On just one of the main paths on a visit last year I counted 17 different vendor stands. Some were built in, some were carts, some were mobile but anchored, some were just sitting shuttered and empty, except for the local birds making nests inside them. On top of that, there are soda machines, water machines and all manner of plasti-crap vending devices everywhere anyone might walk. There are no nice seating areas anywhere where there isn't that stuff. The zoo is over run w/ vendor contracts. It should ALL be eliminated and vending kept to only two areas: The visitor's center gift shop and just a few food vendors in the central eating area. I just couldn't believe the amount of resources (water, electric, upkeep staffing, etc) each of these things eats up. Rule no. 1 National Zoo: The animals come first. Screw the vendors.

    December 13, 2013 01:24 pm at 1:24 pm |
  5. woodviolet

    This is just lazy writing that becomes an obfuscation of the facts:

    "'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."

    The ANIMALS WHO ARE BEING NEGLECTED TO DEATH are "giving the National Zoo attention is doesn't want"? Are you kidding? No, you're being paid to write, and you're being lazy, and in the process taking the responsibility away from the people whose JOB it is to protect these animals. How about accountability across the board here? If you get paid to take care of animals and you don't, and as a result animals die, you should be disciplined, and then fired.

    AND if you get paid to report facts, and you are lazy and smart-alecky, and as a result the truth is obscured, you should also be disciplined then, if you don't step up, fired. This is a serious issue, innocent lives are being lost, and you treat your job as a game.

    Also, previous commenter was right when s/he observed that zoos are prisons for animals. They are not for "conservation," nor are they for education. No one here can claim that they learned from a zoo (at least not what they think they did). They teach children nothing more than that animals exist for our amusement. They indoctrinate children to view animals as undeserving of full lives, and as mere accessories to humans. And even if zoos DID educate, how can it be argued that that is a good excuse to deny a living creature the right to a good life, the one s/he was intended to have? My desire to see an elephant is not more important than that elephant's right to be free. My desire to see an antelope is not more important than his/her right not to break their neck and die.

    December 13, 2013 01:42 pm at 1:42 pm |
  6. woodviolet

    This is just lazy writing that obfuscates the facts:

    "'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."

    The ANIMALS WHO ARE BEING NEGLECTED TO DEATH are "giving the National Zoo attention is doesn't want"? Are you kidding? No, you're being paid to write, and you're being lazy, and in the process taking the responsibility away from the people whose JOB it is to protect these animals. How about accountability across the board here? If you get paid to take care of animals and you don't, and as a result animals die, you should be disciplined, and then fired.

    AND if you get paid to report facts, and you are lazy and smart-alecky, and as a result the truth is obscured, you should also be disciplined then, if you don't step up, fired. This is a serious issue, innocent lives are being lost, and you treat your job as a game.

    Also, previous commenter was right when s/he observed that zoos are prisons for animals. They are not for "conservation," nor are they for education. No one here can claim that they learned from a zoo (at least not what they think they did). They teach children nothing more than that animals exist for our amusement. They indoctrinate children to view animals as undeserving of full lives, and as mere accessories to humans. And even if zoos DID educate, how can it be argued that that is a good excuse to deny a living creature the right to a good life, the one s/he was intended to have? My desire to see an elephant is not more important than that elephant's right to be free. My desire to see an antelope is not more important than his/her right not to break their neck and die.

    December 13, 2013 01:43 pm at 1:43 pm |
  7. Rudy NYC

    Fair is Fair

    Zoos are nothing but prisons for innocent animals. Outlaw them. And no, I'm NOT being sarcastic.
    ------------------
    They are prisons in most cases. Unfortunately, many species would probably be extinct by now without them.

    December 13, 2013 01:43 pm at 1:43 pm |
  8. mtnwest

    Zoos are depressing – tiny prisons for wild animals. If people want to conserve species, they need to save the wild areas for these species. That involves reducing development, renewable energy policies to slow climate change, reducing poaching – those are hard solutions for hard problems. Stuffing animals into tiny pens isn't doing anything but making some people money. boycott zoos.

    December 13, 2013 01:48 pm at 1:48 pm |
  9. chicadow

    What is the scientific name for "antelope-like animal?"

    December 13, 2013 01:49 pm at 1:49 pm |
  10. J Side

    Charge $8 for adults, $5 for children, students, and seniors, and you will solve the budget problem, people will show up at reasonable rates, it doesn't have to be free.

    December 13, 2013 01:50 pm at 1:50 pm |
  11. penguin

    Without zoos we(as a population) would know almost nothing about the animal kingdom. They have their problems, but, on balance, the positives outweigh the negatives.

    December 13, 2013 01:54 pm at 1:54 pm |
  12. The Real Tom Paine

    "they would probably have enough money if they weren't paying their union workers $75 an hour to sweep the sidewalks."

    Another example of idle speculation without a shred of evidence from a bored, angry, frustrated little person.

    December 13, 2013 01:59 pm at 1:59 pm |
  13. SirLordBaltimore

    And liberals want to put the feds in charge of our hospitals. What could go wrong?

    December 13, 2013 02:02 pm at 2:02 pm |
  14. timverba

    Matt Damon and Scarlett Johannson to the rescue.

    December 13, 2013 02:03 pm at 2:03 pm |
  15. Mary Zoeter

    Zoos are horrible places, even the so-called good ones. To imprison nonhuman animals and then neglect them is unconscionable. I just hope that any who are lucky enough to escape are able to avoid their captors and tormentors.

    December 13, 2013 02:09 pm at 2:09 pm |
  16. blue079

    Hate to say it, but maybe this zoo needs to close for good, or at least until we can afford it again. Send these poor animals to sanctuaries across the country where they can get better care and attention.

    If there is no room in the budget to SAFELY and HUMANELY care for these animals, then they shouldn't be there at all.

    I am not very supportive of zoos to begin with (for this very reason) but the animals who call zoos home deserve the absolute best care possible.

    December 13, 2013 02:11 pm at 2:11 pm |
  17. Robbie Steinmetz

    So charge admission or decide if we really need a National Zoo. Washington, DC is a tourist destination. People expect to pay to see the sights. Or, there are enough zoos in the country and enough other attractions in our nation's capital that we don't need a zoo there. Take your pick. Either one is better than a compound where animals are mistreated, regardless of what you call it.

    December 13, 2013 02:14 pm at 2:14 pm |
  18. smith

    Liberals don`t like the zoo, so why would they fund it. Somebody from the 1% will have come in and save the day. No wonder the liberals hate the 1% so much, they pick up the ruins the liberals leave behind.

    December 13, 2013 02:23 pm at 2:23 pm |
  19. George T Hibs

    It is nearly impossible to fathom a pig dying from malnutrition. This sounds like a case of poor oversight, supervision and direction from whomever is in charge at the National Zoo. I am glad the tigers and the African Lions are doing well unlike the Lyon African in the WH. US citizens will be next when we start dying from poor health care under Obamacare.

    December 13, 2013 02:25 pm at 2:25 pm |
  20. Silence DoGood

    @SirLordBaltimore "And liberals want to put the feds in charge of our hospitals. What could go wrong?"
    ACA is about insurance regulation.
    And it was the radical Christian Right that wanted to force women to submit to procedures.

    December 13, 2013 02:28 pm at 2:28 pm |
  21. Patrish

    Not impressed with Association for Zoos and Aquariums – they really don't do much. No excuse for animals to suffer and die in Zoos. if you can't do it right then get out of the business.

    December 13, 2013 02:29 pm at 2:29 pm |
  22. John

    Human children need to see a range of animals up close so that they can grasp size and the diversity of life. From this they grasp classification and structure, ecology, any number of things. That is why children LIKE zoos, there is always new input.
    That said, animals can and do go insane in boring settings. I have seen psychotic polar bears and demented gorillas in inadequate spaces. And, what children don't need in their faces is cheap incarceration. Zoos can be beautiful even to the animals, but the worst are horrid. And the cost-difference between beautiful and horrid is not great enough to excuse anything. It is mostly just extra square meters of space.

    By the way, though, Robbie, ALL the good things in D.C. are free, eg the Zoo is part of the Smithsonian which is free. And perhaps as the legacy of us all it should stay that way so no-one can be kept out by economics. Pay to play here is not so important, what matters most here is the health (mental and physical) of the animals.

    December 13, 2013 02:39 pm at 2:39 pm |
  23. Fair is fair

    Animal lovers don't visit zoos

    December 13, 2013 02:46 pm at 2:46 pm |
  24. Coffee Party

    This is what happens when the GOP cuts everything to the bone except the crony contract kickbacks to their 1% buddies.

    December 13, 2013 02:57 pm at 2:57 pm |
  25. Roy Gutfinski

    Why are we putting animals in zoos anyway? They have committed no crime. It frankly makes more sense for animals to be putting people in zoos in order to protect the environment which has been so shamefully misused by people.

    December 13, 2013 03:01 pm at 3:01 pm |
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