Bungle in the Jungle

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

"There are times," says Olson, "when everybody decides they're going to have some animals shipped [in], the veterinarian has to step in and be traffic cop and direct how many we can bring in at a given time. But the standards are never short-circuited."

According to Olson, there are plans in the works for additional quarantine space. Herwig confirms this. After the audit made the rounds, with its implicit threat of public exposure, Herwig says, he was enlisted to write a grant proposal to the Zoological Society requesting approximately $75,000 for a new quarantine facility in the 2000 budget.

"It's the first time they've even acknowledged it in 20 years," Herwig says.

In better days: Reba Tucker feeds a paca.
Courtesy of Reba Tucker
In better days: Reba Tucker feeds a paca.

Meanwhile, according to Olson, the question is not one of whether the zoo can quarantine, but of how the quarantine is managed.

"In other words, does the aquarium staff manage the quarantine of those animals, or does the veterinarian and his staff manage it? In the past it's always been the aquarium staff managing their own quarantine."

Asked if it's likely to stay that way, Olson replies: "It may not."

If that sounds like an veiled threat, Reba Tucker recognizes the tone. Tucker, curly-haired and nervous -- a self-described "animal person" -- came to the Houston Zoo more than 18 years ago, starting zoological life as an apprentice keeper in the children's zoo, later transferring to birds, and taking a year's sabbatical before returning to begin a 13-year run as a keeper in the small-mammal building. Tucker, along with numerous zoo employees past and present, remembers the long tenure of former zoo director John Werler, another animal person, who retired in 1992, as a sort of golden age at the Houston Zoo. When, in 1993, Donald Olson accepted a transfer out of his chair as director of the city Parks & Recreation Department and into the general manager position at the zoo, things began to change. Being a retiring type by nature, Tucker found no reason to complain and continued doing her job as she had for more than a decade, during which time she'd received not so much as a hint of a disciplinary note on her annual employee performance evaluations.

Tucker broke her silence, hesitantly, late in 1998. Political maneuvering among management, she says, had led to a situation in which two zoo supervisors, Steve Howard and Lucille Sweeney, were being paid concurrent salaries for the same job, while Sweeney had her duties methodically stripped away until she was largely a token presence on zoo grounds. It was not Sweeney's fault, Tucker insists, but the fact remained that money was being wasted, which galled Tucker in the face of perpetual short-staffing problems and what she saw, and sees, as a continuing decline in the quality and quantity of animal diets over the past five years.

Tucker sent a letter to parks director Oliver Spellman in November 1998 explaining the situation. Howard and Sweeney had occupied the same position for six years, both being paid full salaries, while Sweeney acted as keeper for a few animals. Howard had recently requested a voluntary demotion to a different department, leaving the position essentially vacant, and Tucker had learned that a two-year primate keeper named Tonya "Tinker" Boyd had been promised Howard's supervisor position by curator Barbara Lester even before the position was posted with the employment office, even while Sweeney was still being paid for that same supervisory position, all of which would have been counter to city hiring policy.

Tucker asked that Spellman look into it. She was told that Donald Olson would investigate. She remembers thinking: "Well, that's asking the fox to guard the henhouse."

Less than a month later Tucker had a note from Barbara Lester, "reminding" her to check previous daily reports before starting work, to remove food bowls from animal cages at designated times even if the animals had not eaten their normal fill (no reference to any failure in this regard is noted), to handle produce per USDA policy (again, no reference to any failure to do so) and to deny animals access to their shift cages during exhibit times. "Please understand," the note concluded, "that this is not a disciplinary note but should be taken as a warning and a reiteration of policies."

The heat, apparently, was on.

Out of nowhere, Tucker says, Donald Olson was suddenly poking around her section at the small-mammal building.

"I was giving crickets to the meercats, which I've been feeding for years, and he came over and pretended that he counted them. He started walking around looking for things wherever I was that day, in whatever section I was in. I knew I was in trouble right then, when he started hanging out out there. Then Barbara [Lester] came back there and -- very, very hostile -- told me that Don Olson had counted the crickets that I gave to two meercats, and said that I had given too many, and to inform me that next time I'd get a written reprimand for it."

That reprimand never came, but others did. On December 2 Lester delivered a written reprimand, which Tucker disputes, for failing to feed six cages of Madagascan hedgehog tenrecs.

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