Yeesh: National Zoo misplaces red panda for a day, latest in a series of sometimes tragic animal mishaps

posted at 6:21 pm on June 24, 2013 by Mary Katharine Ham

Topping off a stellar month for the feds, the National Zoo, err, misplaced a male red panda named Rusty. Government is just a word for stuff we do together, like try to find missing red pandas after the National Zoo has lost them.

Thankfully, they we(?) were able to find Rusty after 20 hours. He was in the neighborhood of Adams-Morgan, outside the zoo.

Because the Smithsonian and National Parks are some of the more high-profile elements of the federal government Americans actually like, Rusty’s brief ordeal was a real and symbolic loss— a highly viral occasion to watch the National Zoo flail in public on the heels of scandals at the IRS, EPA, NSA, and DOJ. It’s no doubt a widely held belief of many Americans that the National Zoo is a jewel of the National Parks system— a preeminent zoo dedicated to the highest of standards. But a glance at its history reveals that’s not always the case.

This isn’t the first incident of seeming carelessness or animal endangerment at the National Zoo. It’s not even the first case involving red pandas. Two red pandas died in 2003 after exposure to rat poison the zoo placed in their enclosure to deal with a rat problem. A string of 23 animal deaths in six months led to an investigation by Congress and the National Academy of Sciences in 2003, and the zoo has at times lost its full accreditation. At the time, the zoo was getting $24 million per year in federal funding:

In January 2000, two of the zoo’s zebras — malnourished and lacking adequate warmth — died of hypothermia. Then came the deaths of a number of other animals, including an orangutan, a lion, a seal, a hippopotamus, a white tiger and two giraffes, all attributed by zoo officials to illness, age or injury…

On July 4, a fox from neighboring Rock Creek Park wriggled into a bald eagle exhibit, killing a bird that was unable to fly.

The explanation for its failures sounded like, well, any other federal failure:

In March, the House Administration Committee, which supervises the Smithsonian, held a hearing on the deaths. Later that month, the American Zoo and Aquarium Assn. refused to renew the zoo’s accreditation for the usual five years, giving it a provisional one-year accreditation while problems are reviewed.

The association cited the zoo’s crumbling buildings, miscommunication among management, stagnant animal collection, inadequate federal funding and the administrative inexperience of the zoo’s director, Lucy H. Spelman. She was the zoo’s head veterinarian when she was promoted to the top post in 2000 at the age of 37.

Despite the problems, Spelman is committed to leading the zoo out of its public relations morass and repairing a campus that opened in the late 1800s. “Our vision for the future National Zoo is to restore it to great zoo status,” she told the congressional committee in March.

In her testimony, Spelman acknowledged that human error caused the deaths of the zebras and the red pandas, and told of personnel changes that were made in an effort to eliminate the management gaps that led to those and other deaths. A new position of general curator was created to provide greater oversight of the animal collection, she said, while departments and policy were changed to increase staff communication and accountability.

That was 2003. How did all that work out? In 2004, Dr. Spelman had to go spend more time with her family and a Congressionally ordered investigation found “[s]ignificant flaws in care and management at the National Zoo threaten the well-being of the 2,700 animals at the park.” In a passage that reads like foreshadowing of the last month in federal scandals, CBS reported Spelman’s efforts to protect the zoo may have focused more on the bad press than the badly treated animals:

Later Wednesday, the Smithsonian Institution, which oversees the zoo, announced that the embattled director of the National Zoo, Lucy Spelman, will leave her job at the end of the year.

“Lucy believes she has become a lightning rod for attention that has detracted from the work of the zoo,” the Smithsonian said in a statement.

In an attempt to manage all the bad press, Spelman had gone so far as to instruct employees to gather personal background information on reporters covering the story, according to an internal memo obtained by CBS News Correspondent Sharyl Attkisson last September.

There were two more controversial incidents in 2006, with the euthanizing of an elephant and the escape of a leopard. The entire National Academy of Sciences investigation is here. Among its findings was that the National Zoo lagged in update techniques and technological advances for animal care despite more taxpayer funding than other zoos.

And, in a turn of events that should surprise no one, the Washington Post found in 2003 the zoo’s head veterinarian Dr. Suzan Murray had been editing official reports on animal deaths seemingly to soft-pedal possible zoo negligence and malfeasance.

In the case of [Tana] the lion, some references to problems that occurred while the animal was undergoing anesthesia were deleted or reworded. Tana died of complications from anesthesia. In this example the fact that a breathing tube had been inserted too far into Tana’s windpipe appeared in one version. That reference does not appear in a later one.

The zoo claimed the changes were standard operating clerical procedure.

The first refuge of apologists for all federal government failures is to blame lack of funding, but the National Zoo got $25 million above and beyond its budget in stimulus funding in 2008. Since the L.A. Times‘ 2003 report, the zoo’s annual budget has doubled to $50 million a year, according to the Washington Post, and most of its employees are rated “essential” in the parlance of the federal sequestration, which means they will face no furloughs.

So, since 2003, a federal entity has repeatedly failed in its basic duties, faced multiple official inquiries that found incompetence in basic management and oversight, been caught covering up those failures, gone after press who dare to expose those failures, promised to fix all the problems, had a leader resign in disgrace for not fixing those problems, had its budget doubled, received more stimulus money than any other similar entity in the nation, and still can’t keep track of its red pandas.

And, it’s not the Tea Party that suffers at the hands of this federal incompetence with a smattering of corruption. It’s adorable animals, who no doubt poll better. Rusty has been recovered safely, thank goodness. Those who question the National Zoo’s conduct in any situation are likely to be subject to demagoguery over this sacrosanct symbol of national pride. But we’re not doing Rusty and his buddies any favors by ignoring repeated failures.

Correction:
I removed a stray reference to Spelman resigning in 2009 because she actually resigned in 2004. I consulted several sources that incorrectly pegged the resignation as 2009, and carelessly let one reference to the incorrect date make it into my post. Apologies!


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I nominate Jamie Gorelick to run this zoo.

Cicero43 on June 24, 2013 at 6:25 PM

Hey, at least we didn’t poison this one!

– The National Zoo

Cicero43 on June 24, 2013 at 6:26 PM

This is a nothingburger. I misplace exotic animals all the time. Currently I can’t find my hippos. They were last seen dancing with some alligators.

rbj on June 24, 2013 at 6:26 PM

Did the panda give up any NSA secrets before it was captured?

Cicero43 on June 24, 2013 at 6:27 PM

That thing looks so cute in the picture.

It would probably rip off my arm and slash my spleen in one swipe.

portlandon on June 24, 2013 at 6:27 PM

A panda walks into a restaurant. After finishing his meal, he stood up, pulled out a gun, & killed his waiter. As he was walking out, a horrified customer screamed, “Why did you do that?” The panda tossed her a dictionary & said, “It’s what I do. Look it up.”
The panda entry read:

Eats shoots and leaves.

itsnotaboutme on June 24, 2013 at 6:27 PM

In an attempt to manage all the bad press, Spelman had gone so far as to instruct employees to gather personal background information on reporters covering the story, according to an internal memo obtained by CBS News Correspondent Sharyl Attkisson last September.

It’s like a tiny mirror image of the out of control federal government. I am just surprised there was no mention of union involvement.

sharrukin on June 24, 2013 at 6:29 PM

Like nearly every other unionized public employee in America, especially schoolteachers, the people who work at the National Zoo cannot be fired for incompetence or inattention or sloth because, racism & economic justice.

When you cant be fired even after you demonstrate repeatedly over time that you suck at your job, where’s the incentive to give a flying f*** if a red panda escapes or if the cages and animal surroundings are third world standard??

Sacramento on June 24, 2013 at 6:29 PM

If this panda was in a cage in the mall, he wouldn’t have gotten lost.

I’m just sayin.

faraway on June 24, 2013 at 6:29 PM

Think Progress naturally blames Obama’s sequester:

Though zoo officials still aren’t sure how Rusty got out, the National Zoo has been hard-hit by sequestration cuts. The Smithsonian Institute, which operates the National Zoo, is facing a cut to the tune of $40 million. Zoo officials told the Washington Post that they’d deal with the shortfall “mainly through freezing hiring, reducing training and delaying new equipment purchases and construction.”

As a consequence, the Zoo hasn’t been able to fill several keeper and curator jobs, forcing the whole institution to take shortcuts.

blammm on June 24, 2013 at 6:30 PM

I’m still scarred by Smokey the Bear dying a week before I visited the National Zoo in 1976. What. My aunt had me make a list of the things I wanted to see in DC and Smokey was at the top of my list. Grrr… At least I saw the asexual regular Panda Bears.

Ooooh… OT- Very dark and stormy in Chicagoland. My large dog is trying to curl up on my feet. That’s not a good sign.

Fallon on June 24, 2013 at 6:32 PM

They should send the National Zoo team out to grab Snowden.

Lourdes on June 24, 2013 at 6:32 PM

I think I shot one of those once.

Akzed on June 24, 2013 at 6:36 PM

Evidently zoo border protection is not a priority for the federal government either.

rw on June 24, 2013 at 6:36 PM

It’s Bush’s fault

burrata on June 24, 2013 at 6:37 PM

It’s so FUZZY!

annoyinglittletwerp on June 24, 2013 at 6:40 PM

Government is just a word for stuff we do together

“Civil servants” are neither. It’s the greatest double oxymoron.

Schadenfreude on June 24, 2013 at 6:43 PM

This is definitely one of those cases where privatization would be the superior solution. The San Diego Zoological Society, which successfully runs several world-class facilities, should take over management of the National Zoo. As in San Diego, ownership of all assets and animals would remain with the government (in San Diego it’s the city, in this case it would be the Feds/Smithsonian), but the non-profit organization would handle all day-to-day operations, staffing decisions, etc. The San Diego Zoological Society’s expertise and success in this area, both in managing the facilities and in managing organization and fundraising issues is quite literally unmatched in the world.

HTL on June 24, 2013 at 6:43 PM

Think Progress naturally blames Obama’s sequester:
 

Though zoo officials still aren’t sure how Rusty got out, the National Zoo has been hard-hit by sequestration cuts… As a consequence, the Zoo hasn’t been able to fill several keeper and curator jobs, forcing the whole institution to take shortcuts.

 
blammm on June 24, 2013 at 6:30 PM

 
Say, what is Obama’s Africa trip costing again? Between $60 and $100 million, right?
 
Low-info huffpo/Think Progress types can’t make those simple connections, though.

rogerb on June 24, 2013 at 6:50 PM

Hey, look

Schadenfreude on June 24, 2013 at 6:54 PM

If a private citizen or company had done this the fines would be in the tens of millions.

jukin3 on June 24, 2013 at 6:57 PM

It’s so FUZZY!

annoyinglittletwerp on June 24, 2013 at 6:40 PM

Welcome back, Twerp. Did you see a bright light before they resuscitated you?

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hCEVTcL1bJ0

Fallon on June 24, 2013 at 6:57 PM

A panda walks into a restaurant. After finishing his meal, he stood up, pulled out a gun, & killed his waiter. As he was walking out, a horrified customer screamed, “Why did you do that?” The panda tossed her a dictionary & said, “It’s what I do. Look it up.”
The panda entry read:

Eats shoots and leaves.

itsnotaboutme on June 24, 2013 at 6:27 PM

LOL awesome :)

dmacleo on June 24, 2013 at 7:04 PM

Welcome back, Twerp. Did you see a bright light before they resuscitated you?

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hCEVTcL1bJ0

Fallon on June 24, 2013 at 6:57 PM

Yeah. Whaa happened?

avagreen on June 24, 2013 at 7:05 PM

avagreen on June 24, 2013 at 7:05 PM

I’m on double secret probation.

annoyinglittletwerp on June 24, 2013 at 7:08 PM

Just revoke it’s passport before it will fly to Ecuador.

tjexcite on June 24, 2013 at 7:08 PM

The National Zoo is a joke. There are parts that are nice, mostly the grassy knoll where folks used to be able to have a picnic. The rest of it is reminiscent of a zoo, circa 1950. In other words, it is horribad.

They should just close it down. Seriously. Re-designate the Henry Doorley Zoo in Omaha as the National Zoo. That is a zoo worthy of the name. Just don’t turn it over to the Smithsonian or tie it to Federal funding or control. Let the folks who actually know what they are doing continue to run it.

Like most things outside their area of expertise, the Feds don’t know the difference between panda dung and floor wax, with respect to maintaining a zoo.

Grinch on June 24, 2013 at 7:14 PM

Lucy Spelman was replaced with Dennis Kelly. He is a no good piece of rat excrement. Thank you.

radjah shelduck on June 24, 2013 at 7:45 PM

annoyinglittletwerp on June 24, 2013 at 7:08 PM

Too bad you and I can’t meet to talk, or at least on the phone…..just to meet other conservatives in this town. . But, there’s no way we can arrange it via internet. (I wrote you about animals being captured for labs and such, but I think you were banned by then.)
Hey, do you have an account on the AJ? I do. We could communicate that way. ??

avagreen on June 24, 2013 at 7:55 PM

I wonder if Treacher dislikes red Pandas as much as regular pandas?

Cindy Munford on June 24, 2013 at 8:16 PM

Thankfully, they we(?) were able to find Rusty after 20 hours. He was in the neighborhood of Adams-Morgan, outside the zoo.

Lucky this was in D.C., where no one is armed, other than the drug dealers.

Attila (Pillage Idiot) on June 24, 2013 at 8:25 PM

rbj on June 24, 2013 at 6:26 PM

itsnotaboutme on June 24, 2013 at 6:27 PM

Thank you both for the great laughs! I’m definitely copying the panda joke.

PatriotGal2257 on June 24, 2013 at 8:27 PM

Rusty probably wanted go to The Black Squirrel, but realized that’s its a bar, not a place where he can meet his furry friends.

Lance Murdock on June 24, 2013 at 9:58 PM

Hey, if someone tried to stick me in the National Zoo, I’d try to escape, too. That place is hell on animals.

James on June 24, 2013 at 10:10 PM

The panda is an undercover NSA agent. You may have noticed that the panda went missing the same time that Snowden did. Ergo Snowden is hiding inside the panda-digesting.

MaiDee on June 24, 2013 at 11:06 PM

This is definitely one of those cases where privatization would be the superior solution. The San Diego Zoological Society, which successfully runs several world-class facilities, should take over management of the National Zoo. As in San Diego, ownership of all assets and animals would remain with the government (in San Diego it’s the city, in this case it would be the Feds/Smithsonian), but the non-profit organization would handle all day-to-day operations, staffing decisions, etc. The San Diego Zoological Society’s expertise and success in this area, both in managing the facilities and in managing organization and fundraising issues is quite literally unmatched in the world.

HTL on June 24, 2013 at 6:43 PM

The San Diego Zoo is wonderful. But it’s also expensive for visitors. The National Zoo is the only zoo in the country that is free to the public. You can certainly question whether running a free zoo is a good use of government funds in an era of trillion-dollar deficits. People are clearly willing to pay to visit a high quality zoo. But the entitled idiots in DC would scream bloody murder if you took their crappy free zoo away from them.

rockmom on June 25, 2013 at 12:20 AM

The panda joke is taken from a book of the same name, “Eats, Shoots and Leaves” by Lynne Truss, which is a humourous exposition on the dangers of mis-placed punctuation.

AesopFan on June 25, 2013 at 12:25 AM

For Twerp: Lubbock doesn’t have a zoo, but we used to visit the prairie dog town at Mackenzie Park; wonder if that is still there?
(Glad you are back with us again.)

AesopFan on June 25, 2013 at 12:27 AM

So that’s how they do in Master Shifu in Kung Fu Panda 3. Man, I hate spoilers.

pt on June 25, 2013 at 12:28 AM

Red Pandas are little escape artists. We have them at our zoo and for a long time the zookeepers were outmatched by the pandas in the escape game. But the keepers finally won. The reds are now procreating and the babies are tiny and cute. Our zoo is wonderful BTW.

IdrilofGondolin on June 25, 2013 at 9:24 AM

AesopFan on June 25, 2013 at 12:27 AM

Aesop, glad to know another conservative is in Lubbock. I’m impressed with your comments that I’ve seen on the web. Didn’t know you live here.

As I’ve become completely unimpressed with our local AJ and the libs that use it to throw rocks and use their dirty tricks on conservatives in general, it’s good to know that folks such as you and Twerp live here, too. {^_^}

avagreen on June 25, 2013 at 10:18 AM

AesopFan on June 25, 2013 at 12:27 AM
avagreen on June 25, 2013 at 10:18 AM

Aesop:Prairie Dog town is still there. There’s a den off of University that I walk by all the time-so I’ve no need to visit there.

Avagreen: Are you involved with the County GOP? Do you know Carl Tepper or Mallory(don’t recall his last name)? My husband’s a GOP precinct chairman. We are both known by them. I think that Mallory knows my ‘handle’. Maybe we could meet through those channels. Hmmm.

annoyinglittletwerp on June 25, 2013 at 10:39 AM

Have they counted their leopards recently?

Richard Blaine on June 25, 2013 at 11:01 AM

Too bad you and I can’t meet to talk, or at least on the phone…..just to meet other conservatives in this town. . But, there’s no way we can arrange it via internet. (I wrote you about animals being captured for labs and such, but I think you were banned by then.)
Hey, do you have an account on the AJ? I do. We could communicate that way. ??

avagreen on June 24, 2013 at 7:55 PM

If you are just trying to exchange contact information without making it public, then you could just exchange your private contact data over a public email address that you don’t use, i.e.,

1. You both get a temporary account with yahoo or someone

2. You post the temporary addresses right here, publicly, in the comments section.

3. You immediately exchange your regular, private email addresses/phone numbers/whatever via the public email accounts

4. Delete and/or abandon the public email accounts, or save them for annoying companies/websites that demand your email address for no good reason.

5. Rest comfortably in the knowledge that only you and twerp read the private exchange of contact info (well, ok, only you, twerp, Eric Holder, the IRS, the FBI, homeland security, and probably the EPA)

RINO in Name Only on June 25, 2013 at 11:42 AM

RINO in Name Only on June 25, 2013 at 11:42 AM

o_Ô
.
.
Or, we could go to the local newspaper’s commenting section and contact each other via that site.

avagreen on June 25, 2013 at 1:00 PM

Are you involved with the County GOP? annoyinglittletwerp on June 25, 2013 at 10:39 AM

Not at this time…..

avagreen on June 25, 2013 at 1:02 PM