Sick and Fired

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

Mr. Karl H. Peterson, age 41, walked into the office of the Houston Press in May 1998 and started telling his story to the receptionist. Karl's arms were bulked up and covered with tattoos of Gila monsters and Guatemalan palm vipers. He had a ZZ Top beard, long, stringy hair and the intense focus of any number of the obsessively aggrieved who arrive unannounced at this office clutching coffee-stained manila file folders full of "documentation" and a righteous thirst to see the truth of their story unveiled. Although Karl was there to see anyone at all and nobody in particular, the receptionist called the newest reporter on staff up to meet him. Punting apparent weirdos to new hires is journalism's version of hazing.

Karl talked for well over an hour. He related something Byzantine and convoluted about his mistreatment at the hands of his former employers, the Houston Zoo. He was obviously smart, well-read and intellectually strong, but he also seemed perhaps a little unbalanced, a little too tied to his idea of principle, a little too ready to believe in conspiracy.

I took notes as best I could, photocopied a pile of his papers, told him I'd be in touch and stashed everything in a hanging file tabbed "Zoo Psycho." I didn't think Karl was actually psychotic in any medical sense, just that he was one of those people so caught up in their mission that untangling actual fact and gaining perspective on details long before blown out of any reliable context seemed a fruitless effort. There may well have been a kernel of truth in his complaint. There usually is. But it looked like it was going to be an awful lot of effort to prove that one guy got screwed, which, after all, happens every day.

These early impressions are important only because one year later it's starting to look like Karl -- like someone every day -- did get screwed. And he got screwed, it seems, as a direct result of people who took one look, weren't quite sure what to make of what they saw and filed Karl Peterson away -- wrongly, it now seems -- as the Zoo Psycho.

Karl grew up the son of a cop in Los Angeles. He attended El Camino Community College in Gardena, California, for two years studying biological sciences and industrial arts. Then he jumped to the University of Houston, where he spent another two years studying biological sciences, literature and technical writing. He was a herpetology freak, an impassioned student of reptiles and amphibians.

His first zoo job was a nine-month stint as a bottom-rung animal keeper at the San Antonio Zoo's Department of Batrachology and Herpetology. Then again he jumped to Houston, as a keeper in the same department at the Houston Zoo. That was 1977. In 1983 he was promoted to senior keeper at Houston. And then in 1991, skipping the supervisor level altogether, he was promoted to curator of the department.

The steady climb up the ladder in Houston was a rarity in the business. Curatorial positions at zoos are similar to first-chair violin gigs with symphony orchestras. People tend to hold those jobs till they drop, and applicants for promotion are resigned to the fact that skipping from zoo to zoo as positions become available is the only way to move up. Karl Peterson never skipped from zoo to zoo because, he says, he didn't care to move up. He just liked his job. When jobs above him came open at his zoo, he just happened to be the best candidate. Fourteen years after he started, Karl became management.

He was, by most accounts, an odd fit with management, a hands-on curator and an exceptionally wide-ranging thinker in his field. Between 1979 and 1996 he published 43 papers with titles such as "Conspecific and Self-Envenomation in Snakes" and "The Effect of Toe-Clipping on Houston Toad (Bufo houstonensis)" in publications with such titles as Bulletin of the Chicago Herpetological Society and Evolutionary Theory. Since 1982 he has been the studbook keeper for the International Aruba Island Rattlesnake.

Gordon Schuett, Ph.D., assistant professor of integrative biology at Arizona State University West in Phoenix, has collaborated with Karl on studies of the Gila monster and invited him to organize the zoo component of an international symposium on pit vipers.

"Karl does excellent work. He's an excellent thinker. For a person where publications aren't part of their curriculum, he's done it on his own with his own resources, for the most part, and has published some really insightful pieces, not only in herpetology, but in evolutionary biology. As a person I think very highly of him. I have a lot of very good opinions about his intellectual capacity. And as a curator as well."

Alan Kardon, supervisor of the reptile and amphibian department at the San Antonio Zoo, and a sometime co-publisher of articles with Karl, says that his friend "had a very strong reputation throughout the zoo community, especially involving captive husbandry and reproduction." "His specialty has been montane reptiles, meaning reptiles from high elevations," he says. "There's a species called the Bothriechis rowleyi, and those have only been bred at the Houston Zoo while he was there and at his private facility. There have been fewer than 11 ever collected, period, and he has those on loan courtesy of Dr. Jonathan Campbell at the University of Texas in Arlington. That should give you an idea of Karl's reputation, too. Karl established the mandarin rat snake program when he was at the zoo. That's a snake that always did poorly in captivity. He was able to acclimate them and start breeding them. And it was actually through the work that he did and the zoo did that established the protocol for keeping that species throughout other zoos and in the private sector."

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."

Did Karl's co-workers, including Neitman, share that fear?
"I don't think so. My personal opinion on it and talking to other people ... on the one hand nobody can be sure what somebody's going to do. On the other hand, everybody, as I remember it, and myself included, figured that if something happened to Karl because of his medical problems, he would probably be more inclined to cause harm to himself rather than ever hurt anybody else," Neitman says. "He could be loud and intimidating at times, but I can also say I've personally never seen him lift a finger against anybody. Sometimes it was just his looks rather than anything else."

Karl ended up returning to work with a simple doctor's note stating his readiness. And the way Karl sees it, the screws continued to tighten.

The way zoo officials saw it, Karl began abandoning his job.
Historically, Karl claims -- and a Texas Workforce Commission Appeal Tribunal later found -- he had been allowed to report to work between 9 a.m. and noon, a sort of tacit accommodation of his struggles with insomnia. But when Karl came back to work after the September 1997 hospitalization, Head Curator Red Bayer told him he would henceforth have to arrive at work at 8 a.m. Karl protested, citing his insomnia, and provided a medical questionnaire from Dr. LaGrone outlining his medical condition.

Karl couldn't hack getting to work at 8 a.m. and began to accrue tardies and absences that he now blames on the added stress of what he calls his "harassment" by his supervisors. In January 1998 Karl was subject to "attendance counseling" and was told that the present pattern was unacceptable. In March the City suspended Karl for a week for excessive absenteeism. He had racked up 671 hours of sick time and 404 hours of emergency vacation.

From March 30 through May 26, 1998, Karl was absent or tardy a total of 218 hours, according to City figures, though Karl contests many of the log's details. Clearly, whatever the exact totals, Karl was having problems.

Dr. LaGrone released Karl back to work on April 15, 1998, again with a note explaining that he would need a modification of his work hours due to his insomnia. Instead of offering any accommodation, on June 22, 1998, the City again suspended Karl without pay, this time indefinitely. The paperwork referenced no reason for the suspension aside from absenteeism.

Karl sees his absence problems as being the result of his depressive disorder. He asked for leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act, a federal law that allows for up to three months' leave for serious health conditions. The leave was denied. He asked for an accommodation of work hours under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which specifies such accommodation as a possible solution for persons with disabilities, including major depression. Bayer instructed Neitman to begin keeping a phone log of when Karl called in, detailing where he was and what he said.

Karl offered, much like Olson had once done, to take a demotion to a position of less responsibility. This, too, was denied.

Neitman, like Karl, thinks that by this point Don Olson -- for all his concern about Karl's mental health -- was just looking for a way to get him out of the organization.

"At that particular point, yeah. I think he was already assessed as a loose cannon, and there towards the end I don't think there's a whole lot he could have changed," Neitman says.

By that time, EAP's supposed confidentiality aside, the rumors were flying at the zoo. Brian Moore, at the time a keeper under Karl's charge, resigned in early May 1998 to move his family to New Jersey and felt compelled to address a letter to the City of Houston explaining that "in no way was Karl Peterson a factor in my decision to leave." Asked later to explain the necessity of writing such a letter, Moore says, "I just wanted to make sure that nobody used me and my departure from the zoo as a pawn against Karl, saying that I was leaving because of him." Clearly, even the keepers knew that administration was gunning for Karl.

Karl, of course, was eventually fired, though Karl says to this day he has never been officially notified of his termination. The date the City now provides as Karl's termination is July 1, 1998, although interestingly this date is within the ten-day window that his indefinite suspension letter of June 22 allows for in an appeal of the suspension. Even a December 2, 1998, letter signed by Mayor Lee Brown, over five months after the suspension, thanks Karl for "taking the time to appear before City Council regarding your indefinite suspension," with no mention of termination. The letter goes on to inform Karl that his cases are still active with the City's Office of the Inspector General and promises a response from that office, which Karl has yet to receive. As late as January 25, 1999, the Texas Workforce Commission was holding telephone hearings to determine whether Karl was fired or had voluntarily quit, which latter possibility is an issue Karl says the City falsely raised in an attempt to deny him unemployment benefits. The commission found that Karl had been fired.

Karl in fact applied for those benefits, but the City denied them because Karl had made his application on December 27, 1998, more than 30 days after the July 1 termination date of which he was never informed, and a mere 25 days after Mayor Brown's letter informed him that his case was open and under investigation.

Karl applied for a disability pension on September 17, 1998, and was denied for the same reason.

Earlier this year I accompanied Karl on a scheduled visit to the zoo to retrieve some of his personal belongings. We were met at the entrance and subsequently escorted through the premises by a uniformed Houston police officer.

Now, Karl says he is denied entrance to the zoo grounds, and he claims he's still got personal possessions in his former office that he has not been allowed to retrieve. He had a friend shoot a videotape of Karl's attempt to enter the zoo as a paying customer. Karl appears perfectly calm during the interchange with several successive members of the zoo staff. He was not allowed entrance.

Finally, on April 13 of this year, Karl was granted a modicum of relief. A Texas Workforce Commission Appeal Tribunal decided that the City was wrong, that Karl was indeed qualified to receive his unemployment benefits. Based on new information that came out in the appeal, including Red Bayer's admission that Karl's starting work hours had long been established as anywhere from 9 a.m. to noon before the arbitrary 8 a.m. clampdown, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has reopened its investigation of Karl's ADA discrimination complaint. The denied pension, without a clear course of appeal, remains in limbo, and Karl -- after two years of concurrently fighting his medical condition and the City -- is nearly indigent.

His independent herpetology work has fallen off as his time has been consumed with gathering documents and making notes and filing appeals. At this point, he knows his well at the Houston Zoo is poisoned, and he has no wish to return to work there. Besides, even though a new medication regimen seems to be working well, he's increasingly uncertain if his depression will allow him to work. That, he says, is what the disability pension he wants is there for.

Zoo administration, of course, cites a zipped-lip policy on speaking about former employees and declines to comment on Karl's case, and that, Karl says, may be the unkindest cut of all. All he really wants now, aside from the pension he thinks he has coming, is some answers. Why, instead of using a medical separation policy seemingly intended for cases such as this, did the City place him on indefinite leave? Why, if they were so concerned about the state of his mental health, did they respond to the crisis with punitive measures instead of accommodations? Why, if they knew he was sick, did they deny unemployment benefits and his pension? Why, if they thought him to be teetering on some mental brink, did they harass him into deeper depression? Why did they respond to him with fear instead of taking his medical condition seriously and employing reasonable and already established measures to deal with it?

Karl's not likely to get his answers. Recent court cases have established that the best way for an employer to be sued is to make qualitative comments about a former employee. But there's another legal edict, from April 1997, that's equally relevant. The EEOC, in order to carry out the ADA of 1990, addressed for the first time the ADA's coverage of persons with mental disabilities. The ADA defines disability as "a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities, specifically including major depression." Relief under the ADA, according to the guidelines, should include the altering of work schedules, assignment to a different job or altering the method of supervision. All of which Karl requested. All of which were denied. The EEOC says the new guidelines were intended to address the "myths, fears and stereotypes" associated with mental illness. Like the ones Karl was met with when he first walked into the Press office a year ago complaining of mistreatment. The same ones that hounded him out of the only job he ever loved.

E-mail Brad Tyer at brad_tyer@houstonpress.com.

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