Damage Control In Zoo Deaths

Red pandas were accidentally killed last year when zoo staff put rat poison pellets in the pandas' cage. CBS

While officials at Washington D.C.'s National Zoo are trying to keep the public's focus on the positive, behind the scenes they've begun a massive public relations campaign to manage the fallout from the rash of unusual, and unnatural animal deaths, reports CBS News Correspondent Sharyl Attkisson.

Some of the deaths were obviously preventable, others mysterious or unexplained. Two red pandas were poisoned, prairie dogs were eaten by rampant rats, a bald eagle was killed in his own cage, and two zebras were starved to death.

In an attempt to manage all the bad press, zoo director Lucy Spelman has gone so far as to instruct employees to gather personal background information on reporters covering the story, according to an internal memo obtained by CBS News.

It's unclear what the information was to be used for. But the memo says Spelman wanted personal details on the reporters, including whether they have spouses or children, and whether they are members on any boards. It advises zoo employees to do the research through normal means and "anything else creative you can think of."

The zoo also hired PR giant Hill and Knowlton to develop a confidential action plan to respond to an upcoming series of stories by the Washington Post. The goal of the plan is to protect Spelman as director and prevent "worst-case scenarios" -- including reporters continuing to pursue the story, or animal rights groups getting involved. It suggests recruiting zoo allies to "independently call the media" and sign letters to the editor.

Donations to the zoo were used to pay the PR firm, and the zoo says the bill came to about $50,000. Whether or not that's what donors had in mind when they gave -- the zoo is funded heavily by taxpayer dollars --
supporters defend the expense as part of the mission to support the zoo.
  • Lauren Johnston

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