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Expert Voices

Endangered Przewalski’s Horse Breaks Neck, Just as National Zoo Releases Neglect Report (Op-Ed)

przewalski's horses, critically endangered species
Przewalski (Image credit: Una Richardson.)

Marc Bekoff, emeritus professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, is one of the world's pioneering cognitive ethologists, a Guggenheim Fellow, and co-founder with Jane Goodall of Ethologists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Bekoff's latest book is Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed (New World Library, 2013). He contributed this article to LiveScience's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

On December 11, CBS aired a special report on charges of animal neglect — death, injuries and escapes — at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. In the segment, investigative reporter Sharyl Atkisson asked why the zoo had not yet released its report in response to the numerous serious charges, some of which are months old, and the spokesperson for the zoo, Pamela Baker-Masson, responded that the zoo needs to release the information "in a thorough and process-oriented way that makes sense."

While it's not clear what "makes sense" means, later that day, the zoo released its reports (recommendations and response, with personnel information redacted) and the timing could not have been worse — also on December 11, I learned that a young Przewalski's horse died after he broke his neck in a cage at the zoo's Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal, Va. Details of this incident have not been released. Przewalski's horses, are listed as endangered animals (and in the recent past were listed as critically endangered), and this loss is not only tragic for the individual and his family, but also for this species as a whole.

Once again, the National Zoo, one of the landmark zoos in the world, finds itself being investigated for serious neglect of its residents. This is not the first time that this zoo finds itself in the spotlight for issues of serious animal neglect.

I wrote about this in 2004, when I was asked to do an outside review of the report and summary of the numerous and grievous charges against the zoo, and yet, despite these charges, the zoo was re-accredited by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA) shortly thereafter.

Specifically, in my review I was asked to judge whether the arguments, findings, and conclusions of the "Review of the Smithsonian Institution's National Zoological Park" were supported and to determine whether the report was accurate, complete and even-handed. I found that the arguments, findings and conclusions were supported and the report was a very fair and even-handed assessment of the conditions of the zoo.

The previous charges against the zoo involved many case studies that showed how poorly the zoo was run and highlighted the pitiful and shameful lack of documentation of pertinent information and the utter failure across administrative levels to implement procedures — those procedures could have helped to improve the well-being of animals who were ill, as well as the well-being of other individuals.

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Some major concerns that were raised in the report included (but were not limited to):

  • The lack of documentation for the preventative medicine program and the lack of compliance in numerous instances in providing annual exams, vaccinations, tuberculosis tests and infectious disease testing;
  • Shortcomings in the animal nutrition program despite a "history of world-class nutrition research" (p. 51) that have "undoubtedly lead to animal deaths at the National Zoo" (p. 6);
  • The disregard for adherence to guidelines in research supported by the U.S. Public Health Service (PHS) — and also other research supported in other ways — stipulated by the PHS itself, the Federal Animal Welfare Act, the AZA, Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee and the zoo's own policies and procedures for animal health and welfare (p. 8);
  • Failure to comply with guidelines for euthanasia;
  • Violation of quarantine procedures and protocols;
  • Failure to keep adequate animal husbandry and management records;
  • Poor pest control;
  • Poor compliance with the zoo's own policies (p. 63);
  • Poor record keeping; and
  • Lack of accessibility to records.

I agreed with the committee's recognition that "the decline of the state of the National Zoo had accrued over many years," and with their summary that, "Many issues remain unresolved at the National Zoo." Indeed, this was a gross understatement.

Sadly, there are still some major problems in addition to this untimely and horrific death of a young member of a rare and endangered species.

Bekoff's most recent Op-Ed was "Have People Really Killed Pests Too Rarely?" The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher. This version of the article was originally published on Live Science.