Why Is There So Much Trouble at National Zoo?

While we’re busy watching the National Zoo’s new baby panda and tiger cubs, trouble behind the scenes has led to less charismatic species dying, escaping and attacking us and each other as a result of what some believe is mismanagement by the zoo.

The zoo, which is owned by the Smithsonian Institution and was accredited again in September by the Association for Zoos and Aquariums, has seen quite a few problems within the last year.

A female red river hog named Holly died of an infection after losing a quarter of her weight in eight weeks, which was attributed to improper nutrition. Following her death, a pregnant kudu was spooked by something and died when she broke her neck after running into a wall.

Neither of those deaths were announced because they weren’t on public display yet, and the zoo noted on its website that it typically only announces “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.”

Regardless, broken necks seem to be a recurring theme here. A Dama gazelle also died after running into the wall of an enclosure when she was spooked by a Grévy’s zebra attacking a zookeeper in an adjoining enclosure, which resulted in the zookeeper being hospitalized for serious injuries. At the time the zoo stated that it was against policy for zookeepers to have direct contact with zebras, but it still won’t release the incident report or any other public information.

Oddly enough, this week a young Przewalski horse at the zoo’s Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal, Va., was also found dead along a fence line. According to CBS, a “preliminary necropsy revealed a traumatic fracture of his neck.”

A few escapees including a red panda and a vulture whose wings were not properly clipped, along with two Abyssinian ground hornbills being kept indoors in a shed for eight months because their enclosure wasn’t ready, also made the list of problems.

Last June a volunteer brought concerns about animal care to Dennis Kelly, the zoo’s director, and Don Moore, the associate director for Animal Care Sciences, who set up a committee to conduct an internal investigation into these incidents. The investigation, which was just released, found that “animal care and overall organization, accountability, follow-up and communication are severely lacking” and has prompted a Congressional review.

Kelly’s conclusion was that the zoo’s resources and staff are spread too thin as a result of budget cuts, reports the Washington Post. If that’s the case, the zoo should have been well aware of what its capacity was and should have made efforts to move animals out if it couldn’t properly care for them, not take more in.

According to CBS News, five sources with more than 35 years of combined experience at the National Zoo have come forward to raise concerns about these incidents, which they believe is a result of the zoo deciding to double the amount of animals at the Cheetah Conservation Station without adding new space, in addition to mixing species and genders that it would have been easy to predict wouldn’t get along with each other.

After complaints were made about the hornbills, they were moved in with a wallaby who, according to sources, “bloodied its nose and spent much of its time frightened and hiding.”

“You don’t hear this happening at zoos across the country. It certainly shouldn’t be happening here at our National Zoo,” Cathy Liss, president of the Animal Welfare Institute, told CNN.

Meanwhile, the zoo has spent $4.5 million for giant panda research and its reproduction program, in addition to spending $56 million on a new elephant complex.

Photo credit: Ryan Penalosa


Jim Ven
Jim V2 years ago

thanks for the article.

Carrie-Anne Brown

thanks for sharing

Michael A.
Michael A4 years ago


Loesje vB
Loesje Najoan4 years ago

I agree with Michelle R, I hope that these problems will be solved quickly.

Tim Stoffel
Tim Stoffel4 years ago

All of you who would like to see the animals in zoos go to sanctuaires are listening to propaganda from the animal rights folks. Nearly all zoos provide a better level of care than most sanctuairies. And unlike most sanctuaries, nearly all zoos routinely breed their animals, and share them with other zoos. Breeding is the opposite of extinction!

Anita Wisch
Anita Wisch4 years ago

Sadly, as some of the comments would request, not all animals can go to a sanctuary.

Zoos have a job to do by taking care of the animals, educating the public, therefore causing the people to care, then the public will make efforts to save the species.

If there were enough sanctuaries, that were reputable, that would be awesome!

But that is not the case, so many animals live in zoos. At least reputable zoos are moving in the right direction by changing the enclosures and trying to make them as close to the "natural environment" that the animal comes from, as possible.

Latonya W.
Latonya W4 years ago

Dont take on the job if u dont want to do it...so damn simple..people dont want to work or dont care and the animals suffer..

Wendy H.
Wendy H4 years ago


Kat K.
Kat K4 years ago

It would seem to me that the powers that be would step in and stop this neglect and abuse of these beautiful animals. It is enough that they must live their lives in captivity, but the ones who are responsible for capturing them now will not take care of they properly. How horrible is that?? It is totally absurd to let this go on, and someone needs to put a stop to the suffering of these beautiful, innocent creatures.

Lisbeth Alvarado Sanchez

No animal deserves to live in captivity. I think that most zoos are prisons.