Sick and Fired

Former curator Karl Peterson has been shut out of the zoo, and he wants to know why

For years Houston's zoo has had a strong reputation as a premier venue for reptiles. A fair share of credit for this fact, Karl's peers agree, accrues to Karl. But when Karl's peers say this now, they say it with a hint of ill-disguised worry. The international herpetology club is a small one, and they've all heard something or other about the circumstances under which Karl lost his job last year. Since Karl's job was pretty much his whole life, they wonder what he'll do now. Because the Karl Peterson who started work at the Houston Zoo in 1997 is not the same Karl Peterson who walked unannounced into the office of the Press in May 1998. The old Karl Peterson was odd. The new one is ill.

Karl was first diagnosed with severe depression in 1983. Before that, like many depressives, he didn't know that what he had had a name. The disease didn't overtly affect his work, and that same year he was promoted to senior keeper. In 1986, though, Karl was hospitalized for eight days during a severe attack. His boss at the time, Hugh Quinn, visited Karl in the hospital and asked Karl if he wanted his condition kept secret from his co-workers. Karl said of course not.

"I wanted people to know, so that some of my more eccentric behavior of the past might be understood more readily. I don't like to cook, so I would eat the same thing for lunch day in and day out. Things like that."

After the hospitalization Karl returned to work with a note from his doctor saying that he was able. His supervisors, he says, were aware of his diagnosis but never made any sort of issue about it. Five years later he would be promoted again, by the same supervisors, to curator.

But by the time Karl was hospitalized again for depression, in 1997, he had a new supervisor. Longtime zoo director John Werler, a herpetologist himself, had retired in June 1992. One year later, then-mayor Bob Lanier agreed to demote Donald Olson -- then a City Parks and Recreation Department director implicated in a scandal involving "oversight" of $18.8 million in park improvement bonds, substandard playground equipment and lax inventory controls -- to general manager of the Houston Zoo, though Olson got to keep his Parks and Recreation salary.

Longtimers say the tide turned the day Olson started.
Keith Neitman worked alongside Karl as a supervisor from 1978 until a year and a half ago, when he moved northwest to take a job as a keeper at Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle.

"They ran the zoo differently, the two different bosses. Werler was a zoo person and a herpetologist to begin with. And Olson was never a zoo person. He was more of a businessman, and he got stuck in there. Karl doesn't fit the image of a curator. Curators are supposed to be shirt and tie. I don't doubt that Don Olson from day one probably didn't think Karl exactly fit what he envisioned as a curator."

Karl was released from the hospital after two weeks in 1997. And that, he says, is exactly when things started sliding downhill fast.

Head curator Red Bayer, Karl says, insisted that Karl make an appointment with the City of Houston's Employee Assistance Program as a condition for his return to work. Karl, who was not made aware that the program is strictly voluntary, did just that.

The EAP sent him home with a "Consent for Release of Confidential Information" form to be filled out by Karl's psychiatrist, Dr. Don LaGrone, before he could return to work. The EAP asked LaGrone for a "statement as to whether Mr. Karl Peterson is a danger to self, others, and the collection of poisonous snakes he manages." The City wanted Karl's psychiatrist to say that Karl wouldn't be violent. It was the first time anyone had suggested that he might be.

According to Dr. LaGrone, Karl suffers from a major depressive disorder, a probable genetic condition brought on in part by stress. Decreased appetite and weight loss are symptoms. Pervasive mood disturbances are another, along with chronic irritability, a marked decrease in energy and insomnia. A clinical episode of major depressive disorder, such as the ones that hospitalized Karl in 1986 and 1997, is characterized by the persistence of these symptoms over weeks and requires treatment to send them into remission.

Dr. LaGrone found the City's request that he vouch for Karl's future lack of violence "unusual" and declined to provide such an assessment.

"Just because someone has a depressive disorder doesn't mean that they're going to be violent. I have never known Karl to be violent. I've never even heard him say anything that he wished that someone would be hurt or anything like that."

And if, as it appears, zoo administration had responded to Karl's hospitalization with fear of violence?

"I believe that they would be mistaken. I certainly saw no indication whatsoever at that time that he was violent."

And yet Karl's supervisors at the zoo feared exactly that.
Keith Neitman remembers, "that from comments I heard from management, that they did consider Karl somewhat unstable, and they were a little worried about him, and they were worried about the fact that maybe he'll go off the deep end and cause some injury to somebody or himself."

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