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Rare horse dies at Front Royal institute

The Przewalski's horse foal that was found dead on Wednesday stands in its enclosure at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal. Photo courtesy of Dolores Reed, Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute. (Buy photo)

By Ryan Cornell

A Przewalski's foal that would have turned 4 months old on Sunday is the latest casualty in a string of animals belonging to the National Zoo that have died recently.

The deaths include a pregnant antelope in June, a gazelle in November and a Red River hog earlier this month. The male foal was found dead Wednesday morning by his two keepers at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal.

National Zoo spokeswoman Pamela Baker-Masson said the foal was last seen at 2:30 p.m., Tuesday, and exhibited "totally normal healthy behavior."

A preliminary necropsy revealed a traumatic fracture between his second and third vertebrae.

Baker-Masson said the fracture indicates that he most likely ran into a fence dividing his enclosure and broke his neck. A section of the fence "bowed outward" by his corpse supports the theory.

"When we have the responsibility of managing wild animals, it's a very complex job," she said. "Some animals are more skittish and more prone to run and hit their fences and cause collisions. The Przewalski is a wild species."

The dead foal was found next to a fence in the barn near his mother and two other Przewalski horses. The fence separated the four horses from eight other Przewalski horses housed on the other side of the 2,500-square-foot barn.

Baker-Masson said there are 23 total Przewalski horses remaining at the Front Royal facility and 131 Przewalski horses left in North America. According to the National Zoo, about 1,500 of these horses exist in the world.

The species, which is native to China and Mongolia, was declared extinct in the wild in 1970 before zoos and conservationists revived the population to endangered levels.

"We've bred back the horse to the point where we're moving toward reintroduction to their native habitat," she said. "Zoos might not at first glance appear to some people where conservation is so highly valued, but it is what drives our mission."

She added that the National Zoo played a large role in reintroducing the black-footed ferret, which was declared extinct in the wild in 1979.

She said she believes budget cuts to the National Zoo were not a factor in the horse's death.

"I am confident that even though we are in a challenging economic climate, that the animal care provided to all of our animals, both here at Rock Creek and in Front Royal, get the top animal care," she said. "Any difficult decisions that have to be made, we always choose safety and the well being of our animals as the top priority."

She said the two keepers who care for the Przewalski's horses have a combined 50 years of experience.

"I can tell you specifically, related to this colt, there was no personnel error, error on any part of any staff," she said. "Every incident is taken seriously and if we lose an animal due to an accidental death, the team of people involved will take a step back, review everything surrounding this incident and make adaptations and changes if they believe it is necessary."

In January 2009, a 6-month old Przewalski's horse foal died from a fractured neck at the Front Royal zoo as it was being led into a trailer.

Contact staff writer Ryan Cornell at 540-465-5137 ext. 164, or rcornell@nvdaily.com

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