Union Tribune

March 6, 2003

House panel investigates red panda deaths at the National Zoo

Copley Washington correspondent

WASHINGTON — Two red pandas that died after eating rat poison at the National Zoo perished because of a violation of zoo policy, Zoo Director Lucy H. Spelman told a House panel Wednesday.

Spelman appeared before the House Administration Committee to answer mounting questions about the role of human error in the deaths of animals at the nation’s zoo.

At least two other animals died as a result of human mistakes, zoo officials have said. Two rare Grevy’s zebras died from malnutrition and hypothermia three years ago.

Rep. Juanita Millender-McDonald, D-Calif., a member of the committee, asked whether human error was a factor in other animal deaths.

“I don’t have the numbers in my head,” said Spelman, when asked how many animals had died each year from natural causes and human error.

Wednesday’s hearing marked the first time since 1996 that officials from the zoo and Smithsonian Institution appeared before the oversight committee. The zoo is part of the Smithsonian, which gets two-thirds of its funding from the federal government and is subject to congressional oversight.

As he opened the hearing, the chairman, Rep. Bob Ney, R-St. Clairsville, suggested the National Academy of Sciences perform an independent evaluation of the zoo. Other committee members agreed.

Smithsonian Secretary Lawrence M. Small and Spelman said they welcomed an independent inquiry. They also said they are open to amending a federal law that exempts the National Zoo from surprise inspections that are routine at other zoos.

The red pandas, part of an endangered species, died Jan. 11 after eating rat poison buried in their enclosures to combat a widespread rodent problem.

Spelman said zoo policy bars putting rat poison in areas where animals live, although it can be used elsewhere to control rodents.

“That was a violation by our safety office, (which) was in charge of pest control,” she said. Spelman added that the incident was “the first time this chemical was ever used in an animal area.”

Millender-McDonald wondered how it could have happened.

“Poor oversight, poor judgment,” Spelman replied. She has been director of the zoo for three years and previously was a veterinarian at the zoo.

Spelman said two zoo employees involved in the error retired and a third was reassigned.

Since then, the zoo has changed its policy to require the zoo director personally to approve any use of chemicals on the property. Officials have been reviewing other practices and procedures, she said.

The deaths of the animals have raised the larger question of whether the zoo receives enough oversight.

Asked about that, Small said the Smithsonian has had “tremendous interaction” with the House Appropriations Interior Subcommittee, which approves overall spending at the museum complex.

Several members of Congress sit on the Smithsonian’s Board of Regents, and “all of them are actively involved,” he added.

But Rep. Ralph Regula, R-Bethlehem Township, who sits on both the Interior Subcommittee and the Board of Regents, said in an interview that he doubts “there’s a whole lot” of oversight of the zoo.

“The Smithsonian people, they’ve got their own agenda,” said Regula, who did not attend the hearing. “The zoo is just kind of an appendage for them. Members of Congress haven’t paid much attention to it.”

Regula said Spelman should stay on as zoo director despite the animal deaths.

“I’ve been impressed with her stewardship thus far,” he said. “Whether she was ... not as much in charge as she should have been, I can’t pass judgment on that. Everything I know about her is positive, but there was a problem.”

Ney had been planning to hold a hearing on the Smithsonian “way before the pandas died,” he said.

But he added that several major issues kept the committee occupied last year, including the need to strengthen security at the Capitol after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, election reform and campaign finance reform.