Tiger keeper quits over zoo ‘blame game’
June 28, 2008
THE resignation of a senior supervisor at Melbourne Zoo has exposed a bitter internal conflict over the death earlier this year of a young tiger.
Mark Turner quit after claiming zoo management demanded that he take sole “accountability” for the drowning of 16-month-old Nakal in a moat. Mr Turner, 42, said he was unfairly targeted by management paranoid about ramifications from the incident.
Nakal’s body was pulled from the moat in the public exhibit on March 13. But new information shows that a plastic ball, known as an “enrichment” item, was in his mouth when a keeper found his body. Its presence is pivotal to the dispute between zoo management, whose confidential final report focuses on the ball’s involvement, and Mr Turner, who said the “dangerous” moat was the main contributing factor to the tiger’s death.
Another detail — absent from the zoo’s final report — is that keepers found paw marks near where Nakal was found, indicating that he tried to climb out of the moat.
Mr Turner, who resigned from Melbourne Zoo earlier this month after three years’ service, has warned that the moat is too steep and too deep and, if not modified immediately, endangers Nakal’s two siblings.
It has been a difficult year for Zoos Victoria. The Age has reported allegations of animal abuse and mistreatment; there has been a furore over plans for a theme park at Werribee Open Range Zoo, and staff threatened to strike in a pay dispute that was settled this week.
The three cubs, Melbourne’s first in 16 years, were born in 2006 as part of the international captive breeding program for the endangered Sumatran species.
Mr Turner, recruited in 2005 after 20 years with Wellington Zoo, supervised the breeding of the cubs’ parents, Ramalon and Binjai. He said this week that he loved the zoo, its people and his job, but had no choice but to resign when told to put in writing that he accepted sole accountability for Nakal’s death.
“If I’d done that, my reputation would have been ruined and I would never have been able to work in the zoo industry again,” Mr Turner said.
He said that zoo chief executive Matt Vincent’s main objective was to “get someone to blame, and I was the target”.
According to Mr Turner, eight of 10 recommendations in a final report from an investigation headed by Mr Vincent focus on the ball. He conceded that it may have caused Nakal to panic, and contributed to the speed of his death, but described as absurd the investigation’s report that cites the ball as the primary factor in the tiger’s death.
In his written report to the zoo’s investigation, Mr Turner wrote: “The cause of death was drowning. If the animal had been in a shallow pool, it would not have drowned with the ball in its mouth.”
Mr Turner said that “omitted in the investigation report were the paw marks in the algae that were visible along the edge of the moat near where Nakal was found”, which indicated the tiger “had difficulty gaining a foothold” to get out.
He said the report’s conclusions were inconclusive as to how and why Nakal drowned.
The report finds that the ball was not approved for tigers. But Mr Turner said the ball’s size “did not pose a choking threat”.
The report said the ball was “lodged” in Nakal’s mouth; Mr Turner quotes one of two keepers who removed Nakal’s body that he “flicked out” the ball from its mouth.
The report records concerns that Mr Turner and other keepers raised with the zoo’s curator of exotic fauna, Jan Steele, before the cubs’ births, about the moat’s steepness and depth. Mr Turner said that while some “husbandry practices” were changed, they did not “constitute an answer to the problem”.
Mr Turner wrote that the “shallow shelf that runs along just over half the moat edge has a sudden deep drop-off which will always be a major concern with young animals being introduced into the exhibit”.
Mr Turner also suggested that Nakal’s neurological vestibular disease, which had affected his balance and co-ordination, may have contributed to his death. He concluded in his response to the investigation that the “significant contributory factor to Nakal’s death pertains to the moat design and the inherent risks in moats as a primary barrier of choice”.
In a statement, Melbourne Zoo said the death, which was investigated by a veterinarian and an animal husbandry expert, was due to a combination of Nakal’s condition, the depth of the moat and the ball. It said that “full details have not been revealed to the public or to all staff to protect our staff from unfair and unfounded criticism”.
The moat was defended as being designed and built by “tiger experts to world-class standards”, but that the zoo was “making it easier for the animals to get in and out of the water in the exhibit”.
Mr Vincent said: “We are disappointed to learn that … Mark Turner feels he was personally targeted following the death of Nakal.” The zoo is defending an action brought by Mr Turner seeking reinstatement or compensation.