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Criticism of zoo termed inaccurate Officials go on offensive in response to federal report on death of polar bears

A preliminary federal report that faulted the Buffalo Zoo over its polar bear deaths is riddled with inaccuracies, and officials are confident the zoo will be cleared in the final report, Zoo President Donna M. Fernandes said Monday.

Zoo officials went on the offensive after enduring days of criticism over the revelation that four polar bears died over 16 months.

"This has been a difficult week for me and my staff and all who love this great institution," Fernandes said at a news conference at the zoo during which she faced sharp questioning.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture report indicated that keeper inattention or the consumption of debris may have been contributing factors in three deaths.

But Fernandes insists that the bears died from disease and not from substandard care.

And she blasted People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals for publicly asking the Association of Zoos and Aquariums to withdraw the Buffalo Zoo's accreditation.

"What makes PETA the expert in our zoo?" Fernandes asked.

Zoo officials later met with editors and reporters at The Buffalo News.

The public-relations effort came six days after PETA alerted local media to a critical USDA report that flagged the bear deaths, a hyena death and other care issues at the zoo.

Zoo officials Monday defended the zoo's operations, noting contributions, attendance and membership all rose in recent years.

They also took issue with allegations raised in the USDA report over the deaths of four of the zoo's five polar bears between August 2006 and this May:

* Danny, male, died in August 2006 at age 8 1/2 .

The USDA report said: Danny was suffering from low weight and extensive fly bites to his ears.

In August 2006, veterinarians anesthetized Danny so that he could be treated.

A zookeeper who had been monitoring Danny while he was still immobilized left his holding area for two hours and, upon returning, found the bear dead in an empty pool.

The zoo replies: Danny had not lost weight and had been receiving treatment for fly bites.

He was awake and alert after the surgery but was suffering from the after-effects of being under anesthesia. A veterinarian was preparing to give him an agent that would reverse those effects when Danny died from congestive heart failure. He had not been left alone for two hours.

* Kelly, female, died in November 2006 at age 19.

The USDA report said: A necropsy performed on Kelly showed that she had a number of stones and a plastic toy in her stomach.

The zoo replies: The zoo doesn't dispute that the material was found in Kelly's stomach but insists the stones and plastic toy didn't harm the bear.

Kelly was euthanized after suffering kidney failure.

* Becky, female, died in February 2007 at age 29.

The USDA report said: Becky underwent surgery in February for what appeared to be an internal obstruction.

The surgery found plastic rims in her stomach, and Becky previously had gotten her mouth locked shut by pieces of coconut and cardboard. Becky died a day after the February surgery.

The zoo replies: Exploratory surgery found a small piece of plastic in her stomach that hadn't harmed her. She died of gallbladder cancer.

* Kinapak, male, died May 2007 at age 6 1/2 .

The USDA report: Doesn't mention Kinapak's death. Only notes the possibility that he consumed part of a rat trap and a garbage bag found in the exhibit.

The zoo replies: No evidence was found that Kinapak ate the trap or the bag. Necropsy showed that Kinapak had a congenital heart defect.

The cause of death for the bears is based on necropsies performed for the Buffalo Zoo by an independent company, ZooPath, in Washington State.

The number of bear deaths at the Buffalo Zoo isn't unusual, Fernandes said, and she defended the zoo's decision not to alert the media to those deaths.

Fernandes said that the zoo is in the process of challenging a number of claims made in the August report and that two USDA inspectors went to the zoo in October for a follow-up visit.

The final USDA report is expected early next year.

"We're looking forward to a good report at the end," said James W. Smyton, chairman of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums board of directors.

A spokesman for the association said last week that officials would follow up on the USDA report. The association in September renewed the zoo's accreditation for four years.

The zoo is moving ahead with plans to build a new Arctic Edge exhibit that would replace the current polar bear exhibit.

The Arctic Edge exhibit has been long in the planning stages but has been on hold because of evolving financial priorities and changes in the guidelines for polar bear care.

The zoo has one remaining polar bear, a 6-year-old female named Anana. Fernandes said Anana appears in good health.

She said the Buffalo Zoo is planing to accept two new polar bears from another zoo sometime in the next year or so.

"We will continue to operate our zoo by the most demanding standards," Fernandes said.

e-mail: swatson@buffnews.com

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