No monkeying around for zoo

Identifying potential tuberculosis early is a sign of improvement for the National Zoo.

Last weekend the Great Ape House at the National Zoo in Washington was closed because Kwame, a 4-year-old western lowland gorilla, tested inconclusively for tuberculosis. Although the zoo has been plagued with problems and avoidable deaths over the last couple years, and although it would seem a potential TB case only signifies recurring problems, the zoo should be commended for taking the necessary cautions to protect its animals and the public.

Closing the ape exhibit for several weeks and performing more conclusive tests on Kwame – including sending lung wash materials to a California lab – while cautiously treating him are solid measures to take in the interests of public health and scrutiny by the American Zoo and Aquarium Association, which handles zoos’ accreditations.

In March, the National Zoo, operated by the Smithsonian Institution, received a full five-year accreditation from the association after one year on a provisional accreditation. The accreditation comes in the wake of much criticism by a National Academy of Sciences panel investigating every aspect of the zoo’s management, from nutrition to pest control to record-keeping. The zoo’s director and former chief veterinarian Lucy Spelman resigned after the release of the panel’s report but remains committed to improving the zoo until she leaves at year’s end.

Identifying TB early is a sign of improvement for the National Zoo. Testing is routine on many zoo animals; the primates at Como Zoo in St. Paul are currently undergoing TB testing. Tests would have found TB in an East African bush elephant that was not identified until necropsy in August 2000 at the National Zoo; the animal was euthanized for problems related to joint disease.

Other animals had been misdiagnosed and subsequently euthanized, including an orangutan thought to have recurrent cancer (she had treatable salmonella) and a bobcat with alleged kidney disease (her claws had grown into her paw pads).

Although the National Zoo has seen too many deaths over the last several years, it appears it is on the road to recovery. The association evaluated all aspects of the zoo – care, facilities, conservation, education, finance and safety, among others – and found them satisfactory. But that does not mean the zoo should stop there. To prevent more untimely deaths of the nation’s most popular animals, the zoo must strive to not just barely meet accreditation standards, but to set them.