National Zoo / Wild-Animal Care in the U.S.

One of America's best-known animal parks is the National Zoo in Washington, DC. But recent animal deaths there have caused Congress to order an investigation. I'm Phoebe Zimmermann. And I'm Steve Ember. Zoos in the United States is our subject this week on the VOA Special English program, THIS IS AMERICA.

Like millions of American women, Marie Galloway goes to work each morning. Ms. Galloway works in the nation's capital. Her job is to care for elephants. She manages the four Asian elephants at the Smithsonian National Zoological Park -- the National Zoo.

As she works, Marie Galloway shows no fear. Her huge responsibilities increased in two-thousand-one. Kandula [KAHN-du-lah] weighed almost one-hundred-fifty kilograms at birth. During his first year, the elephant keepers taught him twenty commands.

Big crowds stand in line to see Kandula and his mother, Shanthi. Unlike many other zoos, the National Zoo does not ask people to pay. Most of its money is from the federal government. Friends of the zoo also give.

About three-thousand animals live on sixty-six hectares of land. They represent more than four-hundred species.

Congress created the zoo in eighteen-eighty-nine.

Each year about three-million people visit the National Zoo in Washington. But zoo administrators are currently facing criticism.

Recently, some animals have died. These included a pygmy hippopotamus, a Massai giraffe, two zebras and two red pandas. Red pandas are a distant relative of the giant panda, and are also threatened with disappearing from the Earth.

Congress ordered an independent investigation of the deaths. Also, the Department of Agriculture will now make unannounced visits. Zoos normally get inspected each year. But department officials reportedly believed that the document that established the National Zoo did not require that many visits.

Lucy Spelman says she welcomes surprise visits by experts. Doctor Spelman heads the National Zoo. She became director in two-thousand, at the age of thirty-seven. She rose to head veterinarian the year before her appointment.

The National Zoo is part of the Smithsonian Institution, which also operates a system of museums. Lawrence Small is head of the Smithsonian. He blames a large population of older animals at the National Zoo for some of the deaths. Mr. Small also blames mistakes by workers. For example, the red pandas ate poison that workers put out to kill rats.

Mistakes may have also played a part in the deaths of other rare animals during the past three years. These deaths took place at the zoo and its research center in Virginia. They included three Eld's deer. These rare animals died after two separate attacks by dogs.

Wayne Pacelle is an official of the Humane Society of the United States. He says the National Zoo needs more supervision. He expressed satisfaction that the zoo will be under closer watch.

The National Zoo is a member of the American Zoo and Aquarium Association. More than two-hundred-eight zoos, wildlife parks and other centers belong to this association. The group carries out inspections every five years.

The American Zoo and Aquarium Association last inspected the National Zoo in January. Association officials set a meeting for later this week to consider the results.

Changes have already started at the National Zoo. Director Lucy Spelman now must approve all chemicals used. Animal doctors will supervise the control of rats. And officials have created the new position of general curator to supervise daily operations at the zoo.

Thousands of visitors a month gather to see the two Chinese giant pandas at the National Zoo. Tian Tian [tee-YEN tee-YEN] is the male and Mei Xiang [may SHONG] is the female. These big, furry black-and-white creatures roll around in the grass. They play. They climb trees. They eat bamboo. All the while they seem to study their visitors as carefully as the visitors study them.

China has loaned the pandas to the National Zoo for ten years. They arrived in two-thousand to replace others that had died. The hope is that they will reproduce. A baby would be an important addition.

Giant pandas come from the mountains of central China. Only about one-thousand currently survive in the wild. China has about one-hundred-twenty others in panda-reproduction centers. An estimated twenty more live in zoos outside China.

America's first zoo opened in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in eighteen-fifty-nine. Today about fifty-million people visit zoos in this country each year. "Let's go to the zoo!" is an expression many parents of young children know all too well.

What visitors find when they arrive has changed over the years. At one time, zoo animals lived in small, box-like cages. There was nothing except the animal, its food and its waste. The Bronx Zoo in New York City led the way to better conditions. It designed exhibits to provide more freedom for its animals.

The idea to create settings more like nature has spread to other zoos in America. For example, some -- like the Saint Louis Zoo in Missouri -- permit birds to fly freely, although inside buildings.

Out West, one of the leading American zoos is the one in San Diego, in Southern California. Three giant pandas live there, including Hua Mei [hwa may] -- one of the few born at a zoo in the United States.

The San Diego Zoo is also known for its koalas. These brown, furry animals from Australia are much smaller than the pandas but also highly popular.

Yet, back home, some Australian states fear that koalas may die out. Several years ago, the San Diego Zoo started a program to protect endangered animals and their natural areas. Other parks and wildlife groups are also involved in this project.

The San Diego Zoological Society operates the zoo and the San Diego Wild Animal Park. More than two-thousand animals share about seven-hundred-thirty hectares of land at the Wild Animal Park. Experts have praised the park as a center for protection of rare animals.

For example, the Wild Animal Park has helped save the California condor. With its wings spread, this huge bird measures three meters across. In nineteen-eighty-seven, researchers captured the last known California condors in the wild. They took the birds to the Wild Animal Park and the Los Angeles Zoo.

Today, more than one-hundred-fifty California condors are alive. Some have been freed in unpopulated areas of northern and southern California and the state of Arizona.

Not long ago, a visitor to California saw a condor. Someone told the man how experts had rescued the birds from dying out. "It is a good thing we have zoos," the man answered.

But not everyone would agree. Some people believe it is wrong to keep animals in zoos. They say most of the animals in zoos are not endangered. So they question the need for programs to breed these animals in captivity. For one thing, critics say some animals can die early in zoos.

One group with criticism is People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA. It says zoos teach people that it is acceptable to keep animals in lonely conditions, far from their natural homes. PETA notes that zoos differ in quality. It says animals often have little chance for excitement or exercise.

Animals may bite at the bars of a cage, or walk back and forth for long periods of time. PETA says animals in zoos are sometimes beaten or mistreated in other ways.

Such groups argue that zoos seek animals that are "crowd pleasers" because entertainment is what visitors want most.

The recent deaths at the National Zoo in Washington may add to the criticism. But zookeepers in America say they do a lot more these days than simply put animals on show. Many visitors are likely to agree, especially those old enough to remember what zoos used to be like.

This program was written by Jerilyn Watson. It was produced by Cynthia Kirk. I'm Phoebe Zimmermann. And I'm Steve Ember. Join us again next week for another report about life in the United States on our VOA Special English program, THIS IS AMERICA.