National Zoo's accreditation in jeopardy

Leadership, building, funding troubles reported

March 30, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - The National Zoo, beset by criticism over animal deaths, had its accreditation called into question last week after inspectors reported problems with its buildings, leadership, staff morale and funding.

The 114-year-old zoo's application to renew its accreditation has been tabled until it makes the physical improvements and other changes necessary to win the American Zoo and Aquarium Association's unqualified backing.

Every five years, the association inspects major U.S. zoos, including the Central Park and Bronx zoos in New York, and zoos and animal parks in most sections of the country.

Officials of the Smithsonian National Zoological Park, the National Zoo's formal name, say they are prepared to correct deficiencies to avoid losing accreditation. Lucy H. Spelman, the director, said in a statement that the management of the zoo was "continuing to make changes to improve our facilities and to maintain high standards in animal care."

The National Zoo, in northwest Washington, is operating under provisional accreditation, according to the association. It has until the end of the year to correct deficiencies.

Since accreditation became required for membership in the association in 1985, other zoos, including ones in Dallas and Topeka, Kan., have had their accreditation tabled and were able to restore it, the association said. Since 1998, nine zoos or animal parks have lost their accreditation, and about half have regained it, said Hillary Walker, a spokeswoman for the association.

Losing accreditation would be a serious problem for the National Zoo, part of the Smithsonian Institution, which receives about 70 percent of its money from the federal government. Loss of accreditation could jeopardize the zoo's greatest attraction, the giant pandas. To preserve the genetic diversity of captive animals, the association coordinates the exchange and breeding of the animals, Walker said. That includes the giant panda from China.

The zoo was inspected at the end of January, shortly after Spelman reorganized its personnel after the deaths of two rare red pandas, which were accidentally exposed to a fumigant used to control rodents. This led to questions about several other animal deaths. This month, a congressional oversight committee called for the National Academy of Sciences, a private group of scientists chartered by Congress, to review the zoo's operations, including its conservation and research center in Front Royal, Va. The review will begin next month.

In a written response to the accreditation team's 29-page report, which was released by the zoo Thursday, Spelman said that the staff recognized "the magnitude of our challenge ahead" and would seek supplemental money from Congress to address some of the shortcomings found by the zoo association, including physical deterioration and understaffing.

David L. Evans, the Smithsonian undersecretary for science, said in an interview Friday that he expected "that in six months, you will be able to see significant progress in improving the zoo."

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