Sources have come forward alleging animal care problems at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., one of the country's top attractions that draws 2 million visitors each year. A CBS News investigation reveals complaints surrounding the deaths of several animals and alleged mistreatment of others:
But a CBS News investigation has learned that behind the scenes, there are insider allegations of mismanagement involving animal care. Five sources with more than 35 years' combined experience at the National Zoo have raised concerns to CBS News about recent animal injuries, deaths and escapes.
"I call it 'fetch and pray.' You get the animals and then you pray that the project will work out," said animal biologist and ethicist Marc Bekoff, who reviewed the zoo's complaints for CBS. Bekoff was also a reviewer of a 2005 National Academy of Sciences investigation of the zoo that found "systemic problems at the highest levels."
The investigation cites several examples of animal mistreatment at the zoo, including a pair of hornbill birds that were kept in a shack for seven months. It also delves into the death of a Dama gazelle, which died after it was spooked after a zebra attacked a veteran zookeeper -- a notable incident that happened last month but still remains shrouded in mystery. CBS also noted the similar death of a pregnant kudu, which broke its neck and died after being spooked and running into a barriers in its confined space. The investigation also touches on a malnourished red river hog that died of an infection, several animal escapes and animals that became aggressive when held in the same enclosure as other species.
It's not unusual for animals to spar, but the zoo sources say management failed to predict easily foreseeable conflicts between species and genders, and had ineffective backup plans for separating and protecting the animals when the conflicts arose.
In response, a spokeswoman for the zoo, Pamela Baker-Masson, said:
"We take great care in introducing our animals to these various habitats and transitioning them. Ideally, these things wouldn't happen, of course. I think my colleagues were very well aware and they know these species and they know how to take care of these species. ... Every single animal has a very specific course of action and a plan."
The zoo, it seems, was aware of the issues last summer, and tried to remedy them, but won't reveal details:
CBS News has learned that the zoo convened a task force last summer to investigate the internal complaints about animal care at the CCS. The task force made findings last August and Baker-Masson says some of its recommendations are already being implemented. Zoo officials refused CBS News' repeated requests to release the task force report even though, under public records law, it's considered public material.