Patrons began noticing some of their favourite zoo animals were missing. Some critters died, others were malnourished or didn't receive proper veterinary care. Two red pandas died after being exposed to rodent killer. Mismanagement and miscommunication permeated from the top brass.
"Horrific" and a "travesty" is how prominent U.S. biologist Marc Bekoff described the state of the Smithsonian Institution's National Zoological Park in Washington, D.C., in the early part of this decade.
"They just had to be reviewed. There were animals dying left and right," said Mr. Bekoff, a professor at the University of Colorado, who reviewed operations at what should have been a federal crown jewel.
Now, he can't help but feel a sense of déjà vu over the odd animal deaths and mishaps at the Calgary Zoo, one of Canada's premier facilities, in recent years. The latest came on the weekend, a capybara, the world's largest rodent, that was pinned in a hydraulic door being operated by worker.
"There's something major going on there," Mr. Bekoff said.
"I'm sorry, but if all those things happened in your home, people would begin to think something was wrong with your home. That's why these things really, really need to be investigated fast because … one of the things that happens at bad zoos is you get a string of these things constantly."
The zoo has been putting on a brave face despite the public relations nightmare.
A knife was accidentally left in the western lowland gorilla enclosure. A type of goat known as a Turkmenian markhor hanged itself on a toy. "Human error" was blamed in the deaths of 41 cownose stingrays. Two baby elephants have died, as have several gorillas. A hippopotamus succumbed to circulatory complications after being shipped from the Denver Zoo.
On Saturday, Adali, an 18-month old female capybara that was the size of a large dog and had been in Calgary for five months died instantly after a worker didn't follow "proper protocols and procedures," according to zoo officials.
The employee was suspended without pay for two days and no longer works with animals.
"The incidences are unrelated," said Cathy Gaviller, the zoo's director of conservation, education and research.
The Calgary Zoo, which has capital assets of about $81-million and had a profit of almost $1.4-million and 1.2 million visitors last year, is accredited by the Canadian Association of Zoos and Aquariums and the U.S.-based Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which maintain standards and ethics for the industry.
Bill Peters, national director of CAZA, said a review of operations can be done before the five-year accreditation period expires, and credentials can be yanked. That happened once at the Greater Vancouver Zoo.
But CAZA has no plans to review Calgary's operations.
"Yes, there has been a series of unfortunate incidents and they've been looked at and reports have been done in the various occurrences, but is there a pattern? No, I don't think there's a pattern there," said Bill Peters, national director of CAZA.
Mr. Peters points out the facility's valuable work, including helping bring back endangered species such as the swift fox, whooping crane, black-footed ferret and Vancouver Island marmot.
"It's an outstanding facility. It's really, genuinely a very good operation."
The zoo made the capybara's death public Thursday evening after CTV received an anonymous tip from someone claiming to be zoo employee. Zoocheck Canada received the same information.
Ms. Gaviller said the announcement was delayed in order to investigate and to protect the privacy of the worker.
Zoo curator Tim Sinclair-Smith said officials will look for a partner for the remaining male capybara.
"This is an unfortunate incident. Nobody could have foreseen that this was going to happen," he said.
But Mr. Bekoff said the pattern at the Calgary Zoo demands a closer look.
"It's horrible," he said, "I don't even know where to go with people who say we can explain them all and they're not related. Of course they're related. They're related to the fact that they're all at the same zoo."