Why You Shouldn’t Be Surprised That The National Zoo Lost A Red Panda

Rusty, the adorable red panda pictured above, escaped from Washington’s National Zoo today. While everyone is hoping for Rusty’s safe return, it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on the decrepit state of America’s zoo system — and what that says about America’s budget priorities.

Though zoo officials still aren’t sure how Rusty got out, the National Zoo has been hard-hit by sequestration cuts. The Smithsonian Institute, which operates the National Zoo, is facing a cut to the tune of $40 million. Zoo officials told the Washington Post that they’d deal with the shortfall “mainly through freezing hiring, reducing training and delaying new equipment purchases and construction.”

As a consequence, the Zoo hasn’t been able to fill several keeper and curator jobs, forcing the whole institution to take shortcuts. Two particularly vivid examples in the Post story are the need for Craig Saffoe, a big cats trainer, to now care for goats, anteaters, and cattle as well as the risk that lack of time for training will force keepers to subdue more animals with potentially harmful sedatives.

Again, no one knows yet if sequestration-related cutbacks set the stage for Rusty to fly the coop (ThinkProgress has put in several calls to the Zoo’s press office and will update if and when it gets back to us). But in general, America’s zoos are chronically underfunded, leading to all sorts of unintended dangerous consequences. In their book American Zoos During the Depression: A New Deal for Animals, political science professors Jesse Donahue and Erik K. Trump document the way in which huge public outlays for zoos during the New Deal helped create the modern American zoo. They also tell a darker story: how the Great Recession destroyed zoo endowments and, absent enough private donations, funding for America’s zoos fell apart:

By early 2009 zoos were facing huge losses in both private endowments and public funding. The Bronx Zoo, for example, experienced a shortfall in philanthropic giving. The Lincolon Park Zoo faced a budged shortfall of more than $1 million as private dollars vanished… [T]rying to cope with their own budget woes, states also threatened to cut back the remaining funding for zoos. In New York, Governor Paterson proposed eliminating the Bronx Zoo’s state-funding in two years, which would force it to eliminate 30 staff positions. In California, city council members in Los Angeles cut funding for a $42 million elephant exhibit, and the state funded North Carolina Zoo in Asheboro was denied $4 million for repairs and exhibits…Unlike during the Depression, the federal government did not step in to help zoos.

Donahue and Trump note that the consequences of these budget shortfalls aren’t trivial: “in the face of these financial difficulties zoo directors struggle to maintain the welfare of their animals…[saving money for essential animal care] typically requires downsizing the staff, closing the institution for extra months, and ending environmental education programs so that they can spend money on food for the animals.” This is not just a problem for the animals and the laid-off staffers: In one horrible case in California, a tiger escaped from its pen in the San Francisco Zoo and killed a 17 year old visitor, which was pinned in large part on the Zoo’s lack of sufficient staff by an independent assessment.


There’s a general point here: if the United States wants to have nice things, it needs to adequately pay for them. Zoos, like any other public service, can’t work unless given them enough money to do their jobs right. So whether or not Rusty’s escape is Congress’ fault, it’s worth taking the opportunity to rethink how much we really want to slash our government’s bottom line functions.


Rusty has been recaptured and is returning to the zoo.