Md. vets in Africa to help at zoo Experts: A team of local veterinarians spent 10 days in the impoverished nation of Niger on a goodwill mission to improve care of the animals at the National Zoo in Niamey.

October 19, 1997|By DENNIS O'BRIEN

Just as the inspection of the National Zoo in Niamey, Niger, was getting started, a baboon escaped.

After a 20-minute chase, the animal lay unconscious, hit by a dart from a blowgun fired by Dr. Michael Cranfield, chief veterinarian at the Baltimore Zoo. Officials at the zoo in Niger's capital city were impressed with the blowgun's effectiveness. Their zoo has an animal collection that includes lions, baboons, chimpanzees and hyenas, but no blowguns. When an animal escaped, workers just chased it until it collapsed from exhaustion, or called police to come out and shoot it.

"I couldn't believe it," said Dr. Kim Hammond, the director of the Falls Road Animal Hospital and a part of the team. "I mean a baboon is one mean fighting machine."

Cranfield and Hammond were part of a team of experts who recently returned from Niger on a goodwill mission arranged by the Peace Corps to help spruce up the zoo in the impoverished nation's capital city.

During a 10-day visit, they found conditions ranging from the appalling to the bizarre.

But such conditions are common in developing countries throughout the world, according to those who monitor zoos.

Experts say that zoos reflect the countries they serve.

With extremely limited budgets, they cannot keep up with what are acceptable animal-care practices elsewhere. They also are subject to the same environmental problems, political strife and civil wars that plague the governments where they are based.

Soldiers fighting a civil war this year in Kisangani, Zaire, ate the zoo's elephant. Many of the zoo's other animals starved to death or were eaten by the city's inhabitants as the war continued.

In Liberia, a civil war that began in 1989 flooded the city of Monrovia with refugees, swelling its population from 400,000 to 1.2 million. Soldiers fed themselves by asking for birds and deer, and refugees used the empty cages for shelter. But as the war continued and conditions got worse, the soldiers came in and shot the animals through the cages, until the zoo had lost its animals.

The National Zoo in Niamey has a limited budget for feeding its eight lions. So game keepers fed them donkeys that they slaughtered each day, along with the carcasses of any dead animals found by municipal officials in Niamey.

"This practice would be appalling in America, but due to financial restraints and local culture, it appears to be acceptable to the African public," said a report written by the group on Sept. 18.

The Baltimore veterinarians also found other conditions that wouldn't be tolerated in the United States, but were acceptable in Niger - a country listed in a United Nations report as the least developed in the world.

Cages for the eagle and the hawk were so small the birds never had a chance to spread their wings and couldn't fly when they were first released.

Chimpanzees sat in empty cages, with nothing to keep them busy, and the cage for one of the two baboons was about the size of a large doghouse, which is much too small.

"These animals had no stimulation," said Dr. Keith Gold, medical director at the Falls Road Animal Hospital and a member of the team. "They were in cages with just bars and nothing to keep them occupied. The result was that they were very aggressive animals."

With the help of 20 Peace Corps volunteers assigned to Niger, the Baltimore group built bigger cages, examined and vaccinated the animals and came up with a management plan for each animal's nutrition and health needs. They also put swings and toys in the chimpanzee cages and installed water tanks in all the cages, so the animals could get a drink when they wanted.

The Baltimore veterinarians plan to continue working with Niger veterinarians to come up with a wildlife management plan for the zoo.

One of their first suggestions was that Niamey officials get rid of half their lions because they are so hard to feed.

"They balked at that," Hammond said. "The lions are a commodity to them and they trade lions. But the particular kind of lions they have at this zoo are not that sought after."

Niamey zoo keepers eventually pledged to get rid of half their lions to stop the slaughter of donkeys.

Nate Flesness, secretariat of the World Zoo Organization, said destruction of rain forests and other natural habitats puts increasing pressure on zoos worldwide.

"The primary problem is that these countries don't always have the resources they need," he said.

In Thailand, keepers at Bangkok's Dusit Zoo have developed a one-pound chewable tablet made of concentrated sugar cane, corn, molasses, vitamins and minerals to feed their elephants in the face of deforestation that has virtually wiped out the animal's natural habitat.

Deforestation and development also have increased the numbers of orphaned animals turning up at zoos in places like Africa, Costa Rica and Brazil.

"Many zoos are literally swamped with whatever cute and fuzzy animal whose habitat is being destroyed," Flesness said.

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