Skip to content

Disclosure of animal medical records would invade their privacy

Post categories

  1. Freedom of Information

    NMU         WASHINGTON, D.C.         Freedom of Information         May 6, 2002    

Disclosure of animal medical records would invade their privacy

  • The National Zoo told a Washington Post writer that she cannot have some medical records on a dead giraffe because it would intrude upon that patient’s privacy.

The director of the National Zoo has denied a Freedom of Information request from a Washington Post staff writer citing animal entitlement to medical privacy.

Animals at the National Zoo “in principle” have a physician-patient relationship that protects their privacy, Zoo director Lucy Spelman told The Washington Post in an e-mail response to its FOI request for the medical records of Ryma, a popular giraffe who died at the zoo.

Post reporter James V. Grimaldi reported Monday in his Hearsay column that when staff writer D’Vera Cohn asked the Zoo for medical records, necropsy and pathology reports, Spelman refused part of her request.

“One reason is privacy,” Spelman wrote. “Certainly the privacy rules that apply to human medical records, and the physician-patient relationship, do not apply in precisely the same way to animal medicine at a public institution like the National Zoo. But we believe they do in principle.”

She told Cohn that the core of the veterinary medicine is the client-patient relationship, and that the medical record is essentially a written history of the relationship. But the medical record, essentially a written history of this relationship “is not written in a style or format geared toward the public.”

Government agencies typically do not cite the FOI Act’s privacy exemptions to protect privacy interests of the deceased, but to keep their families from being reminded of them.

Grimaldi reported that Spelman, whom he described as a respected scholar of veterinarian medicine, gave two other reasons for denying records: that the general public is incapable of understanding the raw data without zoo officials explaining them; and, that release of the information would disrupt scientific research.

The Smithsonian Institution, of which the National Zoo is a part, claims that it is not an executive branch agency subject to the FOI Act. It relies on a decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., which ruled in a 1997 Privacy Act case, Dong v. Smithsonian Institution, that the Smithsonian, whose board includes officials from the three branches of government, is not an “establishment in the executive branch.”

However, the Smithsonian does ask requesters to file FOI Act requests for information as do several of the congressional agencies which also are not technically subject to the Act.

News media organizations have complained to Congress that the government denies too many FOI requests using the privacy exemptions to the act.


© 2002 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

Return to: RCFP Home; News Page

Stay informed by signing up for our mailing list

Keep up with our work by signing up to receive our monthly newsletter. We'll send you updates about the cases we're doing with journalists, news organizations, and documentary filmmakers working to keep you informed.