Animal deaths, escapes, and attacks are happening at the National Zoo because the landmark's money and staff are stretched too dangerously thin, Director Dennis Kelly says.
"I can’t spread this staff any more thin than it is now," Kelly told The Washington Post
"It's really the whole zoo — I dare say the whole Smithsonian, as a result of the almost three years now of budget uncertainty and budget cuts," he said.
The zoo is still feeling the effects of the across-the-board sequester
ordered earlier this year, which took $40 million from the budget for the Smithsonian Institute, which operates its 19 museums and the zoo.
Internal investigations were ordered following the deaths of three animals during the past year at the zoo's Cheetah Conservation Station. A female red river hog died of septicemia last December after losing a quarter of her weight in eight weeks. The hog, named Holly, weighed 79 pounds when she died, but had weighed 110 pounds when she first arrived at the zoo.
Another animal, a pregnant kudu antelope, died after she ran into a paddock wall, breaking her neck less than a month after she arrived at the zoo.
In addition, the report revealed that veteran zookeeper Wayne Millner was bitten and kicked by a Grevy's zebra after he went into its compound, leaving him hospitalized with severe injuries.
The third animal's death occurred when a Dama gazelle in an adjoining compound, which was startled by the zebra attack, ran into the enclosure's wall.
The National Zoo is famous for its high-profile exhibits such as the giant pandas and Asian elephant. On Dec. 1, it held a large ceremony, complete with a video from first lady Michelle Obama, to announce the name of its female giant panda cub, Bao Bao.
And while the pandas live in a multimillion dollar habitat, and the zoo recently spent $56 million creating a state-of-the-art Elephant Trails complex for up to 10 Asian elephants, Kelly insists the zoo isn't "staffing pandas or elephants any more or less with the international standards" because money for the panda habitat and the elephant exhibit comes from private donations.
"The actual zookeeping aspect of it is at the proportions that are safe and normal for our profession," he said.
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