Third, it is recognized that species are becoming extinct at rates unprecedented since the end of the Cretaceous geologic period 65 million years ago, when the dinosaurs disappeared from the earth. The primary cause of this emerging tragedy is human activity with its accompanying destruction and fragmentation of habitat (Wilson, 1989; Reaka-Kudla et al., 1996). The concept of the “zoo ark” emerged as a way for zoos to rescue endangered species and possibly to reintroduce them into the wild (Beck et al., 1994; Stanley-Price and Soorae, 2003). Perhaps more important, zoos have positioned themselves, with the support of their members and visitors, as centers for conservation of wildlife (AZA, 1987; Tarpy, 1993; Hutchins and Conway, 1995; Kelly, 1997; Ebersole, 2001; Praded, 2002; Conway 2003; Hutchins, 2003; Hutchins and Smith, 2003; Knowles, 2003).
Each of those ideals—exhibits that cater to animal well-being and public education, captive breeding programs, and survival of species in their natural habitats—has become an essential aspect of the mission of most world-class zoos.
Thus, zoos continue to be popular places of entertainment but must continually make adjustments to have a meaningful role in modern society. At their best, they are organizations dedicated to conservation, education, and science, and they exhibit an array of species to reflect these ideals. At their worst, they are shameless indulgences. Exhibits in a world-class zoo are designed in a manner that is sensitive to the physical and psychologic needs of their animals. The best zoos employ expert veterinarians, pathologists, nutritionists, and other professionals dedicated to the animals they care for and to wildlife conservation. They are institutions of education and learning, providing both on-site and outside training opportunities for their staff and using state-of-the-art electronic communication to assist these efforts. Modern zoos have become responsive to the unprecedented declines in wildlife population and habitat destruction by promoting captive breeding programs, interinstitutional cooperation, and off-site conservation. Increasingly, they have to be concerned with their public image in the mass media, with raising funds, and with promoting cooperative interactions with other zoos to live up to their core missions. As a result of those activities and responsibilities, zoos have become complex structures that place great demands on leadership and on communication among management, staff, and the general public.
On March 5, 2003, the US House of Representatives Committee on House Administration held an oversight hearing on the Smithsonian Institution. During the hearing, questions were raised regarding animal care and management at the National Zoo. On the basis of questions raised during the hearing, Congress requested a science-based review by the National Academies on the quality and effectiveness of animal care and management at the zoo. In response to the request, the Board on Agriculture and Natural Resources and Institute for Laboratory Animal Research of the National Research Council convened the Committee on the Review of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Zoological Park to conduct the review. The detailed charge to the committee is as follows:
A committee of experts will be appointed to assess the quality and effectiveness of animal management, husbandry, and care at the Smithsonian Institution's National Zoological Park in Washington, D.C. and the Conservation and Research Center in Front Royal, Virginia. The study will identify strengths, weaknesses, needs, and gaps in the current infrastructure and provide recommendations on changes needed to ensure effective management and care of the National Zoo's animal collection. The study will provide a description of the system currently in place, the elements and characteristics of that system, and the changing nature of concerns surrounding the system. The committee will examine the historic and recent problems with animal health and animal science practices at the zoo, including recent reports on zoo operations and a scientific examination of the causes of recent animal deaths. The committee will review the NZP within the context of the larger zoo community, identifying unique aspects of the environment in which the NZP operates. The committee will evaluate the communication and coordination of the various divisions of the zoo that impact animal care, analyze the use of resources, and outline attributes of an enhanced system to ensure the health and well-being of the animals at the NZP. In addition, the committee will evaluate recent and ongoing changes in zoo operations. An interim report identifying the most pressing issues in animal care and management and aspects of the system in