It’s Not Happening at the Zoo
story by Marc Bekoff
Author and Professor at the University of Colorado

If you dare look into the eyes of an animal in the zoo, you immediately know something isn’t right. Last winter, I confirmed this when I was a reader for the “Review of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Zoological Park,” a report resulting from a study of the Washington, DC zoo, conducted by the National Academy of Sciences’ National Research Board on Agriculture and Natural Resources. The purpose of the study was to “identify strengths, weaknesses, needs and gaps in the current infrastructure” because of suspicions of mismanagement and inadequate animal treatment. It’s important for the public to know the truth behind an establishment that markets itself as a refuge for animals; even objective readers could see there was a long history of problems, and that the numerous infractions of federal statutes, laws and other guidelines (as well as common sense) were serious and inexcusable.

One of the most egregious violations among the plethora of horrors was the alteration of veterinary records. It was also disquieting that infractions and abuses occurred even though the zoo’s veterinarians are board-certified by the American Veterinary Medical Association. Questions from the public finally surfaced when two red pandas died after being exposed to rat poison. Safety managers, who could have prevented these unnecessary deaths, were nowhere to be found. Many people who work at National Zoo really care about the animals, but there is a shameful lack of concern for animal welfare by some administrators responsible for overseeing the zoo’s operation.

My other concerns included the lack of documentation for the preventative medicine program and the lack of compliance with standard veterinary medicine, the shortcomings of the animal nutrition program (despite supposed world-class research) that have lead to animal fatalities and the disregard for requirements for research given by the Public Health Service, the Animal Welfare Act, the American Zoo and Aquarium Association (AZA) and the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committees, in addition to the zoo’s own policies and procedures for animal health and welfare. The list of problems goes on and on. Infringements such as the failure to keep adequate animal husbandry and management records, poor compliance with the zoo’s own policies and poor record keeping and a lack of accessibility to the records were commonplace.

The AZA reaccredited the zoo in the spring of 2004, apparently turning a blind eye to the zoo’s appalling state and no doubt yielding to political pressure. There still was no strategic plan for the zoo at that time, “despite the recommendations of previous AZA accreditation reports,” which in and of itself justified withholding accreditation until the zoo made some major adjustments. I found that while the report was supposed to foster significant changes, many problems were blatantly ignored.

Today, one can see that not much is different at the National Zoo. An 18-year-old Bactrian camel died in March, and while the causes are still unknown, one must wonder how an animal deemed perfectly healthy only weeks earlier died so unexpectedly. Another camel of the same endangered species, with a lifespan of around 50 years in the wild, was euthanized last year at the zoo. Perhaps some day soon, the zoo’s injustice will be revealed to all.

The full length documents can be viewed at

The photos on this page (taken in Washington, D.C.’s National Zoo) are from Captive Beauty, a book of 50 zoo portraits by Frank Noelker, an associate professor of Art at the University of Connecticut. Their sad, stark beauty—in which more attention is paid to the artists’ murals than the animals’ environments—says something important about how our culture “packages” nature and challenges us to reconsider the purpose and effects of zoos.