December 13th, 2013
10:03 AM ET
9 years 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.

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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. Edwin

    Funny how budget cuts lead to cuts in services, isn't it? When the sequester hit, it was predicted to be a big deal - but clever manipulation of the money led to most high-profile services getting all the money they needed. This was due to both parties - they did not want to be accused of gutting popular services.

    But that means that when the zoo got its cuts, it had no options. Not just the zoo, too - I visited Yellowstone this summer. The roads are badly in need of repair - but they have been underfunded for years (no new budgets have been passed by the House that were approved, and of course no budget passed by the House actually *increased* funding for something like national parks!).

    Basically, in the CUT CUT CUT frenzy that the Republican party has put forth since 2009, agencies have not gotten extra money for things like improved roads or better animal care or the like. Whether or not the notion of cutting so much allows for growth (or even recovery) is a subject for another forum, but it is clear that that particular philosophy DOES have consequences.

    (Incidentally, if you cut all funding for the zoo, you do not save money. You have to pay for animal maintenance - since it is illegal to let rare and endangered animals go, or to kill them for non-medically necessary reasons - or you have to find them a new home, which costs a bundle. Either way, you lose revenue while not actually costing much less - so the "cut" actually costs the taxpayers more than the program does!)

    December 13, 2013 03:03 pm at 3:03 pm |
  2. 54StarryNights

    To those who are trying to blame the President for the funding cuts to the zoo, I would remind you that Congress determines spending, not the President. The President can only propose a budget, but Congress (starting with the House) makes the final determination as to what is included in the budget and they apportion the tax dollars spent.

    December 13, 2013 03:05 pm at 3:05 pm |
  3. Java323

    Meanwhile, the SCOTUS is getting a private elevator for $500,000.

    December 13, 2013 03:08 pm at 3:08 pm |
  4. whozits

    Chris, I hope you didn't get paid for this lazy piece. Tell us that three animals broke their necks running into fences but don't look into why they ran into the fences. Make statements about standard of care and then contradict them with certification but don't explain why the first condition could be true while the second is also true. Just poor all the way around. For the lady complaining about the vendors and advertising – these are attempts by the zoo to make up the shortfall caused by budget cuts. Costs go up annually but funding drops annually so money has to come from somewhere. They are restricted in just what way they can use government property (which the zoo and its contents are) to generate revenue.

    December 13, 2013 03:14 pm at 3:14 pm |
  5. Obamacare = Democrats = EPIC FAIL

    Everything is falling apart with Obama and the Deomcrats running things. You can be sure if all of these animals were members of a labor union, they would be rolling in money and food.

    December 13, 2013 03:17 pm at 3:17 pm |
  6. Walter

    We're 17 trillion in debt. Shut the thing down.

    December 13, 2013 03:18 pm at 3:18 pm |
  7. MashaSobaka

    Take the two million from corporate tax subsidies. They get so much money thrown at them that they won't even notice. This probably isn't just an issue of the budget, though...disorganization and lack of proper care could be an issue of incompetent caretakers. There are plenty of new keepers and animal welfare specialists looking for work all across the country...maybe give some of them a try? If we can't care humanely for all the animals in the National Zoo then the National Zoo has no right to exist. Either fix the problems NOW or make into the Panda Park and send all the other animals to other places where they can be properly cared for.

    December 13, 2013 03:19 pm at 3:19 pm |
  8. birch please

    Zoos should have went away with the advent of the television. Aquariums (with no mammals) are fine because they are fish, not all that intelligent, and most seem quite content swimming around their tanks. Imprisoning animals with complex emotions just for our viewing pleasure is very, very wrong.

    December 13, 2013 03:20 pm at 3:20 pm |
  9. Steph

    I worked at an AZA accredited zoo for 8 solid years. The zookeepers are the heart and soul of the place. I have seen what good and bad zookeepers contribute to the wellbeing of animals, unfortunately. It blows me away what some people got away and at the same time, blew me away the impact these keepers make on species as a whole in a fantastic way. You will always get the good, bad and ugly with ANY job out there so some of this does not shock me. The part that does shock me is the obvious train-wreck of a system they must have going on there. If it is that bad – FIX IT!!! It should not get to this point for something to be done!

    December 13, 2013 03:23 pm at 3:23 pm |
  10. Chimy

    @ Fair is fair – yes they do, you are extremely mistaken.

    December 13, 2013 03:25 pm at 3:25 pm |
  11. D Boyd

    I was there a year ago and it cost me 16 dollars to park. However, when I was waiting in line to pay at the booth on the way out, I saw where the attendant was letting a certian type of people through without paying. I, of course, had to pay the 16 bucks. I vowed never to go back. Perhaps that is the problem......

    December 13, 2013 03:28 pm at 3:28 pm |
  12. Margie

    A congressional review? Like those dummies can get anything turned around! If they had any capabilities or intelligence, our country would be much better off!

    December 13, 2013 03:28 pm at 3:28 pm |
  13. Beatrice

    Pig starves to death = lack of money
    Animals break their necks running into barriers = lack of money
    A panda and vullture escape = lack of money
    AZA accredits the zoo = money for AZA
    That is all.

    December 13, 2013 03:34 pm at 3:34 pm |
  14. MDumass

    That's funny, Edwin. I was at Yellowstone this summer too - for TWO WEEKS - and was amazed at how much road repair was going on inside the park.

    December 13, 2013 03:35 pm at 3:35 pm |
  15. Rudy NYC


    Meanwhile, the SCOTUS is getting a private elevator for $500,000.
    Private parking lots, entrances, stairs, and elevators for judges is pretty much the security standard in this country.

    December 13, 2013 03:37 pm at 3:37 pm |
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