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.

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!