NOTE: In a one-week period in November 2006, two cougars escaped from the zoo and a keeper was mauled by a leopard.
If there were a list of endangered zoos, The Zoo Northwest Florida would be on it.
Deep in debt and facing an uncertain future, The Zoo has suffered a long line of setbacks that includes, most recently, the deaths of two of its most popular animals.
It remains one of the area’s top attractions, but it still is reeling from more than $600,000 in damage inflicted by Hurricane Ivan in 2004 and Hurricane Dennis in 2005.
Three years into new ownership, it’s $3 million in debt and needs $1 million in donations by year’s end to avoid the prospect of closing.
In recent weeks, a bad situation has grown worse at the facility on U.S. 98 between Gulf Breeze and Navarre.
Just after Zoo board members went public with their financial concerns, a hippo and a giraffe abruptly died. The deaths brought renewed attention to allegations from some former employees and volunteers that many animals do not receive proper treatment, and to The Zoo’s loss of accreditation from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
Former docent Carol Mills and ex-employee Sandra Dempsey are among a small group who say flea infestations, bacterial infections and other illnesses among animals have gone untreated, even when Zoo administrators were warned.
“You would tell them about health problems with the animals, and they wouldn’t do anything about it,” said Dempsey, a six-year employee who left last year after working as head of animal stock at one time and head of cats at another.
Doug Kemper, an exotic animal veteran of 45 years who directs The Zoo, shrugs off his critics as “disgruntled former employees.” He flatly denies mistreating any of the roughly 1,400 animals on exhibit.
“Unfortunately, we got kicked in face by the hurricanes and the (Association of Zoos and Aquariums), which opens you up to things like this,” he said.
The Zoo provided a list of 44 animals that have died during the first seven months of this year from causes that include old age, fighting with other animals and diseases. Last year’s deaths could not be compiled last week,
The Zoo’s death rates are not abnormal, he said.
Most zoos have an annual mortality rate of between 3 percent and 5 percent, and The Zoo’s numbers are well within those parameters, he said.
However, Kris Vehrs, executive director of the AZA, could not confirm Kemper’s contention and said no one tracks mortality rates.
“All zoos are different, and different animals have different mortality rates,” she said.
Niles and Sammy
The deaths of Niles, the female adolescent hippopotamus, and Sammy, a 10-year-old giraffe, came at an inopportune moment as members of The Zoo board began soliciting money to save The Zoo.
The hippo was killed by her sire on July 7; Kemper didn’t make the death public until July 12, even keeping the information from The Zoo board of directors, according to member Jack Nobles.
The giraffe’s body was found early on July 17, and The Zoo made an announcement the next day.
Until Niles’ death, it was believed the young hippo was male.
“Niles had been attacked by her father before and was aggressively treated for wounds,” Mills said.
She said Niles should have been separated from the father but was not.
Kemper disputed that.
Niles’ sire, 3,000-pound Kiboko, had shown aggression toward his offspring during feeding but had never attacked her before, he said. After the aggressive behavior, the animals were separated during feeding, he said.
Zoo veterinarian Gus Mueller said there was no reason to separate the two animals routinely.
Niles suffered a minor bite from Kiboko a month before she died, Mueller said.
“That kind of stuff goes on all the time with hippos,” he said.
Sammy’s death is more perplexing.
Kemper surmised the giraffe died after bolting and striking his neck on a post. However, a necropsy found no apparent cause of death, and lab results from a toxicology test are not yet complete.
Questions about care
Former employees and docents also point to instances of what they say was mistreatment of animals:
n Coyotes and New Guinea singing dogs were not treated for flea infestations until volunteers provided the medication.
n Reptiles went untreated for mite infestations.
n At least four kangaroos died of bacterial infections.
n Blood was taken from goats at The Zoo to feed vampire bats.
n Alligators and reptiles were housed for months inside a concrete building with no sunlight.
Mueller said the animals are receiving good care.
“There is no neglect of animals,” he said. “That’s just not true.”
Many times, volunteers and employees become attached to the animals and bring in remedies of their own, but that does not mean the animals are not getting proper care, he said.
Mueller said animals are regularly treated for fleas and mites.
The kangaroos’ bacterial infections were traced to a pipe used to water the animals, he said. The pipe was replaced, and a chlorine drop was added as an additional protection.
Blood samples were taken from goats to feed the bats when blood shipments couldn’t get through after Ivan, Mueller said.
“What were we supposed to do?” he asked. “Let the bats die? The goats were not hurt.”
As for the alligators and reptiles, Kemper said they were kept only temporarily in the education building after the damage caused by Hurricane Ivan.
Kemper said treatments are ordered when animals are sick.
When a clouded leopard was struck with a rare feline disease that causes inflammation of the internal organs, The Zoo spent some $15,000 to send the cat and an animal keeper to the University of Florida for a month for treatment, he said.
When the cat’s condition worsened, Kemper authorized an expensive surgery even though the operation only had a 20 percent success rate. The cat died, but it wasn’t from lack of trying, he said.
“Our primary concern is and always will be for the care of the animals,” Kemper said.
Cougars and fruitcicles
Florida zoos are licensed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and regulated by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Jerry Shores, a Fish and Wildlife investigative specialist in captive wildlife stationed in Panama City, said he found nothing amiss during a recent walk-through inspection at The Zoo.
“There were no conditions that warrant investigation,” he said. “The only thing we’ve handled over there in the past six months since I took over the position was when two cougars escaped. They’ve replaced the fencing and exceeded regulations for the cougar cage.”
The cougars did not stray far from their compound and were quickly captured.
Some current Zoo docents also call the accusations of animal abuse “ridiculous.”
“Everybody at The Zoo absolutely loves the animals,” said docent Joann Von Brock.
Jerry Ellis spends five to six days a week at The Zoo and has accrued more than 3,000 volunteer hours. He said the animals are not only treated well but are pampered.
“One of the things I like to do is make the animals fruitcicles,” he said. “It’s made in cups of fruit with water poured over it and is frozen. The bears and orangutans love it. The male orangutan, Kerajaan, holds his hand out for one whenever he sees us and the female blows us kisses.”
The Zoo’s loss of accreditation by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums last year also is cited by critics.
The Zoo had been accredited since 1988. Out of the roughly 2,400 zoos and aquariums in the country, only 216 are association-accredited.
The Accreditation Commission, composed of zoological experts, spent days on site looking at things like animal management and care, veterinary practices, security, education programs and safety policies and procedures.
Kemper said the timing of the visit resulted in the loss of accreditation.
He said he told the accreditation commission that 600 trees were still down, exhibits had not been rebuilt and sidewalks still were torn up from the hurricanes of 2004 and 2005.
The Zoo filed more than $600,000 in claims but received $59,000 in insurance money.
Kemper said he asked the association whether the facility should go through the process.
“They said they would take the hurricane damage into account during the inspection, but they didn’t,” he said.
Association of Zoos and Aquariums spokesman Steve Feldman said that’s not true.
“We absolutely did consider the hurricane damage,” Feldman said.
The final report of the Accreditation Commission contained both praise and criticism.
On the positive side, The Zoo was praised for its “survivor skills” following Ivan, its affiliation with Pensacola Junior College’s zoo-education program, and its transition from a private to a not-for-profit public facility.
On the negative side:
n A second-year student was unsupervised while working with an adult Indian rhino in the Wildlife Preserve. Zoo officials said the situation was immediately corrected.
n The report cited “inadequate procedures for dealing with venomous animals,” noting that there are two king cobras at The Zoo but no antivenin. Kemper responded that the cobras are not on display and are in a double-locked cage and he has the only key. In the unlikely event he was bitten, antivenin could quickly be flown in from Miami, he said.
n The report also questioned the staff’s low salaries and the resulting inability to attract experienced zoo professionals.
The panel also expressed major concern about the financial viability of The Zoo.
“How is that any of their business?” Kemper asked.
The Zoo has been operating at a loss since its inception, and finances were never a factor in past accreditations, he said.
In 2004, the Gulf Coast Zoological Society, a nonprofit agency, took over operation of The Zoo from Animal Park Inc., founded by four local businessmen.
Pat Quinn, former director of The Zoo, was one of the four founding members who subsidized The Zoo for years. Finally, they determined that a nonprofit group could do a better job of raising money to take the attraction to the next level.
Since the nonprofit took over, the businessmen have donated $500,000 or more to keep The Zoo running.
Although its 50-acre tract is probably worth $8 million or more, the founders asked only that the Gulf Coast Zoological Society pay off the $2.4 million mortgage.
The Haas Center for Business Research and Economic Development at the University of West Florida estimates The Zoo pumps $6.5 million annually into the local economy.
For that reason, Quinn said, letting The Zoo close would not make financial sense.
“It would cost at least $20 million to build another zoo,” he said.
The $3 million needed to eliminate The Zoo’s debt is a small price to pay, Quinn said.
“A cookie sale is not going to save it,” he said. “We need corporations and people in the community with the foresight and heart to say, ‘This zoo is too important to let go.’ “