Tuesday, December 09, 2003
One thing from this weekend that's still bugging me is The Washington Post's series of articles about the National Zoo. The gist of things is that the zoo has lost a number of animals over the past few years, and there are some legitimate questions that have been (and should be) raised about that. However, this two-part article that outlines the deaths of 23 animals comes after a host of similar articles that rehash the same details of the same deaths over the same period of time. Perhaps the two articles would be more troubling had they not been preceded by article after article after article over the past year or 18 months that said the same things. As a keeper told me the other day, "It just makes you sad."
The articles leave the readers (as is evidenced in some of the comments this morning's discussion) believing that the curators at the zoo don't care about the animals in their charge, which is far from the truth.
The other thing is that the articles lack any sort of context. There are no statistics from other zoos to make a comparison about how well/poorly the National Zoo is doing. Mentions of rodent problems at the zoo don't point to the giant rat problem DC as a whole has. No mention is made of the years of cuts the Smithsonian and federal government have made in the zoo's budget, leaving it short-staffed with deteriorating infrastructure. The difficulty inherent in providing veterinary care to wild animals is understated in the articles at best. No mention of the total number of animals being cared for/healed by the staff vs. the numbers who have died. And so forth.
The other thing is that a lot of the charges seem to be coming from one individual, and there is little to no investigation of his motives. Dr. Donald K. Nichols just resigned from the zoo, citing "poor zoo leadership" as part of his motivation for quitting. I don't know what sort of internal politics are going on here, but in the Post articles and discussions, it sounds like Nichols has some animosity toward the current zoo leadership and it could be informative to know some of that background. Also, his criticism is coming from the point of view of a pathologist. It's real easy after an animal is dead to diagnose what is wrong: Wild animals try to hide disease and injury; to do otherwise would mark them as vulnerable to possible attackers and/or rivals. This instinct doesn't subside in the face of a veterinarian who has to make some tough decisions about the care of an animal, so I don't think it's reasonable to expect 100% perfect diagnosis. Hell, if the Post took a similar in-depth look at a hospital, I would expect to find similar problems with misdiagnosis. Although, with humans, it might not result in the same death rate, because humans tend to get extraordinary medical intervention compared to what animals -- even charismatic megafauna at zoos -- get.
I guess the most frustrating thing is that articles leave the impression that things are getting worse when they're not. The first time I visited the National Zoo as an adult, in the early 1990s, it left me with the feeling that things were really bad there. Buildings and enclosures were in rough shape, and the animals didn't seem to be happy. Now, there is a lot of construction going on and several new habitats, enclosures, and buildings have been opened. There are a number of younger animals (the aging collection at the zoo has complicated the health picture, another thing the articles understate). There are more enrichments available to the animals. This is not to say there aren't still problems. Some animals do display lots of stereotypic behavior (a sign of stress, unhappiness, and/or boredom), and some enclosures are still in terrible shape. But, all in all, things continue to look like they are improving. It's not the best zoo in the world, but it is definitely getting better every month, and it is far from the hellhole that the Post articles make it sound.
© 2003–2010 T. Carter Ross