Animal care questioned at National Zoo amid cuts

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WASHINGTON (AP) - The Smithsonian's National Zoo has found serious problems with its animal care and management of various creatures kept in the Cheetah Conservation Station over the past year, and the zoo's director said Thursday that he is looking at changes to the operation amid budget cuts.

The National Zoo released two internal reports late Wednesday detailing concerns and improvements to animal care. Zoo experts disagreed, though, as to how severe the problems are. The investigation began after a zoo volunteer complained about the care of various animals last July.

"The key finding of our investigation is that animal care and overall organization, accountability, follow-up and communication are severely lacking" in the cheetah exhibit area, investigators from the zoo's Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee wrote in a Sept. 3 report.

The panel examined the death of a Red River hog after significant weight loss and possible malnutrition. It also looked at an injury to a species of antelope called a kudu, a wallaby that would become upset when housed near hornbill birds and a vulture that escaped its enclosure but was caught, among other incidents.

The zoo was reaccredited by the Association for Zoos and Aquariums in September.

In an interview Thursday, Zoo Director Dennis Kelly said the animal keeper staff is stretched thin due to budget cuts over the past three years.

"The core issue is the stress that being more thinly staffed and (budget) uncertainty puts on the team," Kelly said. "As much as the budget has declined, it's the budget uncertainty. It's hard to plan when you don't know what your budget is going to be."

The zoo's federal budget has been reduced by about $2 million since 2010, due to cuts from Congress. The zoo does not charge admission as part of the Smithsonian but does raise additional money through donations, retail sales and research grants.

Now Kelly said he may scale back some public programs and animal keeper talks in the short term to allow more time for animal care.

"I am looking at ways we can focus the animal care staff on the daily task of zoo keeping, which might have a short-term impact on our guest experience," he said.

Recent deaths of several animals, including an endangered Przewalski's horse Wednesday, have drawn attention to animal care. But Kelly said the number of deaths this year is normal for a collection of 2,000 animals. In an average year, there can be 200 to 400 deaths based on various lifespans, Kelly said, ranging from mammals to small amphibians and spiders.

In the 20 months since May 2012, 351 animals have died, said zoo spokeswoman Pamela Baker-Masson. The zoo keeps animals in Washington and at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal, Va.

Last month, a zebra severely injured an animal keeper, and a gazelle that was spooked by what happened was found dead. Results of an investigation have not been released.

Zoo investigators looking at the cheetah exhibit recommended that a biologist position be reinstituted to lead animal care for the conservation station after the post was left unfilled due to budget cuts.

Don Moore, the zoo's associate director for animal care, issued a response that was also released by the zoo after public records requests. Many of the investigators' recommendations were either completed by December or are in progress, he wrote. The biologist position that was left empty for several years has been filled after converting an animal keeper position _ a remedy the investigators recommended against to preserve adequate staffing.

The animal care team disputed the overall finding that its care was inadequate.

"We respectfully disagree that these factors are `severely lacking," the animal care managers wrote in response. They noted the Cheetah Conservation Station passed inspections by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.


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(Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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