MU professor and Life Sciences Center director’s investigation helps identify the conditions that imperil zoo animals’ lives
Monday, March 29, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 7:55 p.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

The decor of R. Michael Roberts’ office reflects his respect for nature and his passion for animal science and traveling, but it comes with a dose of humor as well.

A fake bearskin rug with the animated head and the face of a stuffed teddy bear welcome visitors to the room, while an inflatable caribou head mounted on the wall stares down from among book-lined shelves that reach all the way to the ceiling. Then there’s the poster of British sheep breeds juxtaposed against photographs of exotic landscapes. There’s nothing funny or exotic, however, about one of Roberts’ most recent challenges. The man who was appointed in January to become a director of the MU Life Sciences Center has spent the past several months investigating a spate of animal deaths at the National Zoological Park in Washington. As chairman of a 15-member investigative committee, Roberts is helping pinpoint the problems that led to the deaths and, in turn, helping improve the quality of care at the zoo.

The problem

Poisoning, tuberculosis, hypothermia. Inadequate nutrition and medical care. An overdose of anesthesia. What sounds like some sort of Third World horror story instead describes what Roberts and his team found to be the reasons that 23 exotic animals — including zebras, red pandas, giraffes, a bobcat and a tree kangaroo — died at the National Zoo since 1998.

The investigation started last July after Roberts and his committee were appointed by the National Research Council. The committee’s first findings that were made public after six months of research prompted zoo director Lucy Spelman to resign. Roberts, however, thinks the findings mean more. The public, he said, should be interested in the investigation because the National Zoo, owned by the Smithsonian Institution and financed through Congress by citizens’ contributions, belongs to all of us.

“We all have a stake in it. ... In a sense, we all own it,” Roberts said.

The committee

The Smithsonian certainly has an interest in ensuring quality care of the animals at its zoo. With 2.8 million annual visitors, the zoo is the Smithsonian’s most popular attraction. With that in mind, the Smithsonian gave the investigative committee a $450,000 budget. To avoid any conflict of interest, committee members were carefully selected and are receiving no compensation.

Committee member Lester Fisher was a director of the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago for 30 years before retiring in 1992. Fisher called Roberts “a very perceptive and experienced person” who excelled at delegating specific roles to committee members.

“Our role is to answer to a very precise but multifaceted question: What happened to the animals there?” he said. Stephen L. Zawistowski, senior vice president and science advisor for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in New York, and another committee member said he felt “honored” to work with Roberts, whom he described as thoughtful and precise. The remarkable thing about Roberts, Zawistowski said, is how “he is able to create a coherent sense of the committee’s findings when each of us has different types and levels of experience and backgrounds.”

The group’s preliminary report was released in late February and, according to Roberts, deals with the most pressing issue — the poor care of the animals. Roberts said a variety of factors — lack of documentation, inconsistent record-keeping, inadequate oversight of animal nutrition, a failure to follow policies and the lack of a strategic plan — created a lethal mixture of malpractice at the zoo. He said those faults affect the animals like liquor affects an alcoholic. The person “who abuses it might end up spending a night on the street and dying of hypothermia,” Roberts said. “Nobody can say that person died of alcohol abuse, but for sure it was the most important provoking factor.”

Unnecessary deaths

A case in point was the death of a zebra, which was caused by a combination of malnutrition and poor heating of the animal’s quarters.

“The daily provision of food was cut in half, probably as a result of miscommunication between Ms. Spelman and the keepers,” Roberts said. “But since zebras need hay to produce internal heat, its insufficient intake led to death.”

In other instances, the staff killed animals with kindness.

“We might give chocolate to our dogs because they like it, even though we know it’s not healthy,” Roberts said. “Similarly, the keepers were giving monkeys fish instead of feeding them with mostly fruit.” Fish is not a natural part of a monkey’s diet and interferes with their normal digestion.

Each species at the zoo is unique and has particular needs that can be overlooked by a staff dealing with large numbers of animals. Medical checkups and preventive injections must be done regularly, but the staff can easily become overwhelmed by its hectic daily routine and fail to be vigilant about record-keeping or about ensuring proper procedures are used.

For example, administering anesthesia to a lion can be awfully tricky, Roberts said. A zookeeper can’t simply approach the beast and give it a shot.

“You need to shoot it from a distance and then make sure you manage to hit it with the right amount of narcotics to put it to sleep,” Roberts said. “But how can you be sure the lion won’t wake up while you’re still testing it? The animal would still be in a daze and would perceive you as a threat, but at the same time you don’t want to exaggerate with the dose and kill it.”

Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happened to a lion named Lana at the zoo. Because she initially appeared resistant to the narcotics, she was injected with a double-dose of anesthesia and died.

Roberts said his experience thus far has helped him understand the complexity of zoo operations. The committee is now focusing on the second and final parts of the report. Due this summer, it will offer suggestions for improving zoo management, staff training and animal care. While the suggestions will be specific to the National Zoo, Roberts and others hope zookeepers across the country will take the recommendations to heart.

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