Zoo chief quits over critical report

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The two-year scandal over a string of mysterious animal deaths at the National Zoo in Washington DC has claimed its first human victim with the departure of the zoo's director after a damning congressional report on how the venerable tourist attraction was run.

Lucy Spelman, who has been in charge of the zoo since 2000, told staff she was stepping down because she had become a "lightning rod" for controversy and a distraction as the zoo struggled to put its affairs in order. Congress stepped into the controversy two years ago, after the zoo - part of the Smithsonian Institution, which operates most of Washington's leading museums - lost several animals, including two red pandas, an East African bush elephant, and a rare Grevy's zebra.

In each case the study, conducted by the National Academy of Sciences for Congress, blamed sloppy standards. The pandas had been killed by buried rat poison, while in the other two cases zookeepers had failed to notice health problems in time. Records had been changed in an apparent attempt at a cover-up.

Privately, some zoo officials said Ms Spelman's stubbornness and tendency to micromanage had led to her downfall. Others said she had been put in an impossible position by Lawrence Small, the Smithsonian's secretary, who picked her over two candidates who had been recommended.