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Animal Care Update

December 11, 2013

At the Smithsonian’s National Zoo, the safety of our visitors, staff and animals is our number one priority. Managing several hundred species is complex. Our team of professionals cares for thousands of animals, each one with its unique set of requirements and needs. Every day, we work to understand and help protect these species. The vast majority of the time we are successful and celebrate conservation victories.

We work constantly to evaluate and improve the quality of animal care we provide. We take every concern seriously and have protocols and processes in place to evaluate and update our management techniques.

Recent media reports covered an Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) investigation of our Cheetah Conservation Station. Investigations by IACUC and other auditing entities, including the USDA and Association for Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), are routine ways zoos are evaluated to ensure the safety and well-being of animals. In September 2013, the Smithsonian’s National Zoo was again accredited by the Association for Zoos and Aquariums after an extensive and rigorous review.

At the National Zoo, we work constantly to evaluate and improve the quality of animal care we provide. The Zoo is routinely evaluated by several organizations, internal and external, to ensure the best possible care and safety of the animal collections and Zoo staff:

  • The Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) reviews the National Zoo every five years, and recently granted re-accreditation after a months-long process.
  • The Zoo’s own Internal Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) conducts reviews every six months, as well as responding to specific concerns such as these.
  • The U.S. Department of Agriculture conducts periodic inspections, and recently reviewed the Cheetah Conservation Station (CCS) and found no problems.

Reports highlight that the Zoo’s resources are stretched thin. As a public institution, we remain fortunate and grateful for our federal funding. We want to be clear that despite tightening our belts, our professional staff provide the best care possible. Our professional Cheetah Conservation Station staff have a combined experience of more than 118 years.

The recent IACUC report, spanning many months, assessed animal care management at the Cheetah Conservation Station. Specifically, the report reviewed the circumstances surrounding a vulture that briefly left its enclosure, the deaths of a red river hog and a lesser kudu, and issues with Abyssinian ground hornbills and sitatunga.

Following the IACUC report, the Zoo's staff and leadership team evaluated and responded to its findings. We adjusted animal care procedures to prevent similar incidents in the future and increased standards of communication among Zoo departments and staff. The response document clarifies and/or corrects some of the task force findings.

With more than 2,000 animals in our care, we do not report on every death—or every birth or hatching—at the Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute. Typically, we announce the deaths—and births—of animals that belong to an endangered species or contribute significantly to the conservation of its species and animals that are particularly well known.

Any animal death saddens us. The deaths of the red river hog and the lesser kudu were sad and distressing.

As a steward of taxpayer dollars and a national institution, the Smithsonian’s National Zoo is committed to transparency. Whenever concerns are raised, externally or internally, we do our best to address them and share as much information as possible with the public.

Below are additional details regarding concerns raised in the IACUC report, and an update on the November 18 incident involving a Grevy’s zebra and a keeper.

Red River Hog

The Zoo’s pathology and veterinary team found that the female red river hog Holly died of septicemia, a serious infection. Although animal care staff were feeding the hog a diet approved and used by other zoos, she was underweight when she died. It isn’t known whether the septicemia caused her weight loss or whether a low body weight might have made her susceptible to infection. We were able to address and alleviate similar issues for male red river hog Roscoe, who is healthy and thriving.

Lesser Kudu

While in a holding yard, a female kudu spooked, ran into a wall, and died. We don’t know what specifically spooked her; kudu, like many other species of antelope, are naturally skittish. In the wild, running away is a valuable adaptation for survival. A second kudu that recently gave birth has been moved to a quieter, more protected area.

Animal Medical Records

A recent media report stated that veterinary records on the aforementioned kudu were not available when needed. In fact, the National Zoo’s animal care records are accessible and available at any moment for our veterinary team. The Zoo uses an electronic records system called CaresMed that provides access for our veterinarians to have instant access from any point in the park.

Abyssinian Ground Hornbills

Two Abyssinian ground hornbills arrived at the Zoo and were placed into quarantine, a standard protocol in AZA-accredited zoos before introducing animals to their habitat. They arrived at the Zoo before their outdoor facility was ready and were kept in their indoor habitat for eight months. Staff used that time to develop relationships with the birds who were described as “nervous around people” when they arrived. The birds now have access to all habitats, move easily in and outdoors, take food from keepers and are doing well. It took longer than expected to prepare their outdoor habitat for them. We have taken steps to ensure this does not happen in the future.

Ruppell’s Griffon Vulture

A keeper saw the female Ruppell’s griffon vulture Natalie run toward the front of her exhibit, wings outstretched. It appears that the wind lifted her over the barrier and out of the exhibit. Animal care staff responded promptly, and Natalie was returned to her enclosure within 13 minutes. Veterinary staff examined her and found she was not injured. Animal care staff trimmed her flight feathers to prevent a repeat of the episode. Trimming flight feathers of birds is standard practice in zoos and is painless for the birds.

Sitatunga

As sitatunga live in swampy terrain, the keeper team’s responsibility is to provide appropriate material and moisture for the animals’ zoo habitats. Our team constantly evaluates animal habitats and makes adjustments as needed for the health, comfort and safety of the animal. To eliminate the possibility of foot problems, mulch was added to their interior spaces and keepers continue to monitor both the exhibit and the animals.

Mixing Species

Mixed species in habitats is an increasing trend in AZA accredited zoos as it replicates how animals live in the wild. Our professional staff put tremendous effort into planning for and introducing animals into new habitats. Each animal has its own personality and temperament, which can mean that sometimes not everyone gets along, even if their species live together in their native habitat. As such, our team develops a protocol that includes rotating the animals between their indoor and outdoor habitats so that all animals benefit from having access to their yard and stalls.

Special Treatment of Select Animals

We provide staff for all animals according to their needs, as determined by our animal care team, in line with AZA's standards. The National Zoo’s animal care professionals care for thousands of animals, each one with its unique set of requirements and needs. Every animal has a prescribed diet by our nutritionists, has dedicated keepers and receives care and support from our veterinary team. In addition to our federal funding, we are pleased to have generous donors who support select animals and their habitats.

Additions to the Cheetah Conservation Station Collection

A recent media report stated that the animal collection in the Cheetah Conservation Station was increased by six species without extra space being added. The Cheetah Conservation Station has enough space to house all of its animals. While five new species (a total of 10 animals) were added, it is important to note that this was offset by a number of animals transitioning out of the Zoo. These transitions are planned for and meet AZA’s Species Survival Plan requirements.

Grevy’s Zebra Incident

We wish the best for our colleague. Due to HIPAA regulations, we can’t comment on the status of our colleague’s health. Any reports naming our colleague or specifics on injuries sustained were not made by the Zoo. The safety report on the November 18, 2013 incident is in process and will be ready shortly. When it is finalized, we will share the report publicly.