Bungle in the Jungle

Beneath the pretty facade of the Houston Zoo lies a world where animals, and their keepers, are being shortchanged

 The daily report for the Houston Zoological Gardens' small-mammal building, dated Friday, November 6, 1998, notes "gas smell in north section" and indicates that a maintenance worker arrived with a detector, which read negative for natural gas. Again the next day, the daily report notes a gas smell in the morning hours. Yet again, on Monday, November 16, the daily report makes mention of a visiting veterinarian noticing a gas smell and reporting it to zoo management. Construction was going on nearby, and the vet wondered if perhaps a line had been nicked. The next written report was initialed on December 12. "Heater in nocturnal section not working properly. Is blowing cold air. Gas smell by exhibit." The same report noted a morning temperature of 67 degrees in the rain forest exhibit, where a sloth baby was "sounding congested." Finally, on March 16, 1999, more than four months after the first written report, a zoo visitor sniffed the gas smell in the air and went to the administration building to report it. Entex was called out. The building was evacuated (of humans, not of the smaller mammals). Entex turned the gas line off at the meter.

Within a matter of days, keeper Reba Tucker remembers (and her story is corroborated by co-workers who prefer to remain anonymous), a meeting was called wherein small-mammal senior keeper Tonya "Tinker" Boyd accused her underlings of failing to report the gas leak. And so on March 23, three outraged keepers got together to compile their records. Their report for that day reads as follows: "There's no hot water for washing due to the gas being turned off as a result of the gas leak in this building which was documented on the daily report and reported to supervisors on November 16, 1998, November 8, 1998, November 7, 1998, November 6, 1998, and December 12, 1998, and this does not include many verbal reports to and from curator, supervisor and other zoo employees, contrary to what senior keeper TB [Tonya Boyd] previously stated in our small mammal meeting on Friday, March 19, 1999."

This report was signed by all three keepers, but it was not signed, as would be standard, by supervisor Boyd. Instead, say Tucker and others, Boyd refused to allow her employees to turn in their report, and tossed it in the trash.

"Animal person?" Zoo general manager Donald Olson.
"Animal person?" Zoo general manager Donald Olson.

Zoo general manager Donald Olson maintains that the gas smell prompted an "immediate response," and furthermore, that there was, technically speaking, no gas leak.

"We had Entex out at one time to find a gas leak. Never found a gas leak. Turns out it was flue gas off one furnace which had remained off."

A spokesperson for Entex, meanwhile, quotes service records of the utility's March 16 visit to the zoo, to opposite effect. Technically speaking: "We did find a natural gas leak on their house line. Whether or not there was flue gas maybe from a furnace or something, I don't know."

That incident, according to an alarming number of current and former members of zoo staff, is a nutshell illustration of ongoing problems at the Houston Zoo: animals and staff shortchanged by an arrogant administration most concerned with propping up the facades that foster positive public perception, while behind the scenes, animal diets are shorted, animals grow neurotic from cramped quarters and poor management, and keepers do their work trapped between concern for the well-being of their charges and fear of retaliation if they should be so bold as to question management's wisdom.

Let the public complain, and the cavalry attacks the problem, guns blazing. But let a complaint be aired by a zoo employee, and that employee, many say, can expect pointed harassment and "termination."

Fear at the zoo, like natural gas, has a smell that's slowly leaking out of the back rooms and into the open spaces, where some unsuspecting member of the public, sooner or later, is bound to take notice.

The Houston Zoo finds itself at a crossroads. On one hand, the zoo is on the verge of announcing an ambitious 20-year "master plan" of extensive renovations and new construction -- and a concurrent capital campaign aimed at raising some $150 million with which to carry out these projects -- designed to lead the 85-year-old zoo (which relocated from its original site in Sam Houston Park to Hermann Park in 1922) toward that elusive grail of all ambitious Houston institutions: "world-class" status.

When and if the master plan is completed, animal exhibits presently organized by species will migrate to nine new exhibits, or "biomes," based on geographical areas of the world, so that, Zoological Society executive director Mary Ann Newman explains, "we can show the relationship between the species of a region, plants and the culture." The first scheduled biome of the master plan, an Arctic Wilderness exhibit, will boast polar bears housed in a wholly refrigerated environment.

On the other hand, the city controller's office is on the verge of finalizing a performance audit of the city's Parks & Recreation Department, of which the zoo is a component, and the draft of that audit, as obtained by the Press, raises a number of issues suggesting basic institutional shortcomings that will need to be addressed before anyone can reasonably use the words "Houston Zoo" and "world-class" in the same sentence.

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