The National Zoo says a wild fox broke through a heavy-duty metal mesh enclosure early Monday morning and killed 25 flamingoes and one Northern pintail duck.
Zoo staff “are devastated and mourning the loss” of the birds, a National Zoo news release said.
“This is a heartbreaking loss for us and everyone who cares about our animals,” said Brandie Smith, with the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute. “The barrier we used passed inspection and is used by other accredited zoos across the country. Our focus now is on the well-being of the remaining flock and fortifying our habitats.”
The zoo said the incident is the first time a predator has breached protective mesh around the flamingo exhibit since it was designed in the 1970s.
“This event, certainly the magnitude of this event, is unprecedented,” said aid Bryan Amaral, senior curator at the zoo, in an interview with WTOP.
There were a total of 74 flamingos in the enclosure at the time the fox went on the rampage. The flamingos at the zoo have their wings clipped and could not fly away from the predator.
Staff were doing their regular rounds early Monday, “and they came upon what appeared to be a commotion in the yard and saw a fox in the exhibit,” Amaral said.
The fox ran away at the sight of the zoo workers and has not been caught.
In addition to the 25 flamingoes and one duck that were killed, three more flamingoes were injured and are being treated at the zoo’s veterinary hospital.
“They appear OK,” Amaral said. “The prognosis for those three in particular is still guarded. But they appear to be bright and alert and doing pretty well.”
The remaining flamingos were moved to an indoor barn and the ducks were moved to a covered, secure outdoor space, the zoo said.
Staff members inspect exhibits multiple times a day, the zoo said, and the last inspection of the outdoor yards around the Bird House was Sunday at 2:30 p.m. At that time, no “areas of concern were observed at the flamingo habitat,” the news release stated.
However, after the discovery of the fox attack Monday morning, zoo staff discovered a new softball-sized hole in heavy-duty mesh that surrounds the outdoor yard that they said wasn’t there the day before.
The zoo said it is has already taken steps to reinforce the metal mesh surrounding flamingo yard, which was last replaced in 2017 and was inspected and accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
“We actually put out a call to multiple other colleagues at multiple accredited zoological facilities, who also used the same type of containment to see if it was problematic anywhere else.”
He said no other zoos reported any problems with the mesh fencing.
In addition, the zoo has installed live traps around the outdoor yard to catch any predators and digital cameras with movement-triggered infrared sensors to capture overnight activity.
Amaral said the zoo also installed an electric fence around the exhibit to act as an animal deterrent.
The zoo’s Bird House was undergoing renovation at the time and is closed to the public. The zoo’s flamingo flock lives primarily in a 9,750-square-foot-yard outdoor space with a heated pool and barn.
American, or Caribbean, flamingos have a natural life span of about 40-60 years.
WTOP’s Liz Anderson and The Associated Press contributed to this report.