Bungle in the Jungle

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

Beyond the scope of the audit, interviews with ten current and former zoo staffers suggest that present zoo management, largely concentrated in the person of general manager Donald Olson, may be steering the zoo not toward world-class status, but toward shoddy animal care, and even shoddier employee relations, in pursuit of an outward appearance of success.

If appearances are in fact zoo management's first priority, Olson would have good reason for the focus, since nearly 100 percent of the estimated $150 million needed to enact the master plan will have to come from private donors, through two affiliated nonprofit support groups: the Zoological Society and the Zoo Friends. While private donors tend to get very excited about the prospect of funding flashy exhibits with polar bears, they might be less inclined to bequeath their hard-earned money to the kind of institution described almost unanimously by zoo staff: an institution that has cut animal diets to the quick, that isolates social animals and crowds others into tiny cages for months at a time, and that responds to legitimate employee grievances with harassment campaigns and firings.

Aquarium curator Nelson Herwig, age 60, is one of only a few current zoo employees willing to be quoted for attribution, and that's largely because, he says, he has 20 years' tenure with the zoo and is financially positioned to take legal action should such become necessary. "I'm willing to take more risks," he says, "than I would have been able to take a few years ago."

The Houston Zoo is at a crossroads, and these giraffes and keeper Phil Coleman are right  in the intersection.
George Hixson
The Houston Zoo is at a crossroads, and these giraffes and keeper Phil Coleman are right in the intersection.
Keeper Catherine Jordon feeds crowd favorites  - the sea lions.
George Hixson
Keeper Catherine Jordon feeds crowd favorites - the sea lions.

When auditors included Herwig in one of their focus groups, the curator took the opportunity to raise a longtime complaint: lack of quarantine space. Quarantine space is a critical issue for any zoo, providing housing for newly acquired animals until they are determined to be disease-free and thus not a risk to the established animal population. Quarantine space also is used to house sick animals during treatment and recovery. The aquarium, Herwig claimed, didn't have enough quarantine space, a situation that had resulted in animal deaths and an inability to properly treat sick fish, and one that had "existed since day one," or for the entirety of his 22-year stint at the zoo.

"Every time the issue came up about the quarantine space, and I brought it up numerous times, it's just been disregarded. Ignored. I was just told it was not going to be addressed, so shut up about it."

The auditors, however, didn't tell Herwig to shut up about it, and their draft report finds that during a 1997 aquarium renovation, in which Herwig says he was relieved of any input into the facility's design, quarantine space in the aquarium was actually reduced by 60 percent, while display area as a whole increased more than 100 percent. The auditors concluded that "limited quarantine space puts the zoo at risk of non-compliance with its own standards as well as those of the [American Zoological Association]. More importantly, the health of the animals is endangered because diseased animals may be displayed with the healthy population due to inadequate quarantine space. In fact, one zoo patron wrote a letter in January 1999 expressing disappointment with the aquarium exhibit because diseased animals were observed on display. Based on a review of the current master plan projects, the aquarium and additional quarantine space are not included on the list of the capital improvement projects."

After the draft audit reached the zoo, Herwig says, he was approached by assistant zoo manager Red Bayer.

"First of all he wanted to know where the [quarantine] information came from, who on my staff had talked to the auditors, and I told him that as far as I knew I had, that one or two of my other employees might have, but that everything in the audit that I saw was pretty much directly from me. If I hadn't been there for so long, I would have been very, very nervous, but I know that it's just an intimidation tactic. [Olson] never said a word to me directly. What he does is he works through others. You've got to get to his lieutenants, or you've got to get to people who've communicated with him directly, and there'd only be three or four people up there that he does that [with]. That'd be Red Bayer, [head veterinarian] Joe Flanagan, [operations manager] Mike Gaskin, and that's about it. He gives his orders, delegates, through them."

It needs to be noted that this finding, like all audit findings quoted in this article, are from the audit's draft report. A final report will be published only after a conference between the auditors and zoo management, at which zoo managers will have an opportunity to contest findings or offer additional information. Official zoo response to the draft audit was not available at press time, and the Zoological Society's Newman declined to comment on the draft's findings, saying she hadn't yet seen the review. Donald Olson, however, responded to inquiries by saying that the zoo does indeed maintain adequate quarantine space, but that it is distributed through various locations, some distant enough from their relevant displays that they are presently "inconvenient," but adequate nonetheless.

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