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Zoo report finds fear, dishonesty

View expanded coverage about the problems at the Topeka Zoo.
City requested AZA inspection after series of C-J stories highlighted problems at facility

By Tim Hrenchir
Created January 25, 2010 at 3:31pm
Updated January 26, 2010 at 12:03am

Seven weeks after a top-to-bottom inspection of the Topeka Zoo, its findings released Monday point to a lack of trust in management and misleading statements from senior staff members.

The city, in a news release Monday, said the report from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums could lead to the re-evaluation of the zoo’s accreditation during the AZA’s mid-year meeting March 3.

The harshest assessments in the report were reserved for management.

“A feeling of fear, intimidation, and lack of trust in management” exists at the zoo, and communications from the director and senior staff were “not completely true,” it said.

“Making misleading statements to staff and the public is unacceptable and damages the institution both internally and externally,” said the six-page report compiled by three zoo inspectors from similar facilities across the United States.

The AZA serves as an accrediting body for zoos and aquariums and ensures that accredited facilities meet higher standards of animal care than are required by law. The Topeka Zoo was stripped of its AZA accreditation in a 2001 move that left it unable to borrow or loan animals to other zoos or to receive other benefits. The zoo got its accreditation back in 2003 and was re-accredited for five years in 2007.

The team the AZA sent to Topeka from Dec. 2 to 4 conducted not an accreditation review but a “focused inspection.”

The city said in a news release Monday that in light of the AZA’s findings, it was anticipated the AZA could re-evaluate its accreditation of the Topeka Zoo during its mid-year meeting March 3 at Virginia Beach, Va.

City manager Norton Bonaparte said he had asked interim zoo director Dennis Taylor to review the findings of that inspection and provide him a response by Feb. 8. The city has until Feb. 15 to provide a written response to the AZA and plans to meet with AZA officials at the mid-year meeting.

“We thank the AZA for this review and response,” Bonaparte said. “We look forward to using it to make improvements at the zoo, seeking to have the best zoo possible.”

Bonaparte said that in anticipation of the AZA’s findings, the zoo had established an team to review and respond to them. That team, led by Taylor, includes representatives from the zoo staff, city human resources and risk management, and the executive director and members of the board of the Friends of the Topeka Zoo.

Bonaparte called for the independent review Oct. 22 after The Topeka Capital-Journal reported about two U.S. Department of Agriculture inspections faulting the zoo for lax veterinary care and inadequate record keeping in the deaths of animals. Among those were findings that a hippo died after being found in 108-degree water, a leopard died after being administered a medication later found to be fatal, and a Pallas cat and rabbit died after being infested with maggots.

The zoo’s director at the time of the AZA inspection was Mike Coker, who announced Dec. 8 he was retiring at age 54 effective Dec. 25. City spokesman David Bevens said the city only days before Coker’s retirement fully uncovered the circumstances of, and lack of transparency surrounding, the death of the hippo discovered in 108-degree water in 2006. City administrators learned in December that the zoo bought a new thermostat and mixing valve for the boiler one day after the hippo was found.

The AZA report concluded:”Mechanical issues with the water supply may have contributed to hyperthermia and the death of the hippo in 2006. Previous official reports had denied this possibility.”

The AZA inspection was conducted by Thomas Meehan, vice president of veterinary services of the Chicago Zoological Society in Brookfield, Ill.; Eric Miller, senior vice president and director of zoological operations at the St. Louis Zoo; and Gary Geddes, director of zoological operations at the Metro Parks in Tacoma, Wash.

The report’s other findings included that:

– No mechanism exists or is understood by staff through which animal welfare issues can be reported with confidence that they will be addressed. “In the view of many employees, a culture of intimidation appears to exist,” the report said.

– There is a history of personnel actions that keep staff from functioning well. “Transfers appear to be based upon favoritism, not merit,” the report said.

– Safety infractions that allow “unintended animal movements or escapement” are not objectively evaluated, as numerous staff members reported staff transfers from one area to another were used as corrective action, without other consequences. “The lack of objective performance evaluation and concurrent progressive discipline for critical errors fails to improve employees’ capabilities and erodes important peer trust,” the report said.

– An aging infrastructure of exhibits continue to be ignored while new exhibits get fast-tracked with mediocre quality.

– “The general curator appears to be too isolated from the day to day activities and thus from the capacity to offer the effective support often needed by the zoological department.” The zoo’s general curator is Merle Miller.

– The team didn’t find specific examples of veterinary care that didn’t meet professional standards, though there was evidence of a need for improved communication.

City Councilman John Alcala said Monday the report makes it clear the zoo needs an administrative reorganization.

In the meantime, Alcala said he thinks the city should find a new home elsewhere for the zoo’s two elephants, Tembo and Sunda, who need room to run. An animal advocacy group called last month for the Topeka Zoo to close its elephant exhibit, citing factors that included inadequate space.

The AZA report devoted two sentences specifically to the elephant exhibit, saying: “The elephant barn was completed in October 2007 (a few months after the last inspection). Staff was engaged in the design details of this exhibit, and it appears to be working well and is suited appropriately for 2-4 elephants.”

Tim Hrenchir can be reached at (785) 295-1184 or tim.hrenchir@cjonline.com.



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