Bungle in the Jungle

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

Tucker's next employee performance evaluation, signed by supervisor Tonya Boyd and dated May 7, 1999, noted two areas where "performance standards are being met or exceeded": behavioral enrichment to the same meercats Tucker had been harassed about months earlier and "improved use of break time and lunch hour," whatever that might mean. More than balancing the positives was a long list of 12 negatives. Under the heading "time management," Tucker was criticized for making coffee. She was further chastised for sudden deficiencies in cleaning her facility, disinfecting exhibits, offering enrichment to animals besides the meercats, feeding animals their proper diet, communicating with co-workers, interpersonal skills, technical knowledge, productivity, safety awareness, judgment, teamwork, pest control and attendance. In this last category she was cited for eight tardies, of ten minutes, three minutes, five minutes, ten minutes, four minutes, seven minutes, 20 minutes, and one hour and 15 minutes in a four-month period. The hour-and-15-minute tardiness, Tucker explains, occurred when she stopped on her way to work to attend to an injured animal in the road.

Tucker responded to all of the charges in her first negative evaluation with a five-page letter, but to no avail. Apparently Reba Tucker had suddenly become, after 18 years of service, a completely incompetent zoo keeper, unacceptably inadequate in every last aspect of her job.

Less than a month after the evaluation, Tucker applied for time off under the Family and Medical Leave Act, with a doctor's note recommending that she be off work for six weeks because of work-related "stress, anxiety and depression." Tucker then requested a transfer to either the bird section or the animal hospital, figuring that her well was poisoned in the small-mammal building. Eleven days later Lester wrote back denying the transfer, citing Tucker's "below standard" performance review.

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

Tucker, with her medical leave extension period dwindling and now surviving on vacation-time pay, has since retained a lawyer, who on November 1 sent a letter to the city requesting consideration of a transfer to the zoo commissary, and further asking for notification of acceptance or denial of this request by November 15. As of November 15 no response had been received. Meanwhile, a co-worker authorized by Tucker to pick up her checks at the payroll office saw Reba's name on a list of employees slated to receive routine bonus checks, but that check was never released to her. And as of last week, that co-worker, who doesn't want her name used, was informed that she could no longer pick up Tucker's checks, that Tucker herself would have to make arrangements to pick them up at the parks department office.

"I guess they're going to fire me," Tucker says now. "I guess I should have known. I don't know. I'd be scared to go back now. They'd just set me up for something and fire me. I wish they would just tell me what's going on."

The use of such roundabout termination tactics, and the fear of retaliation, comes as no surprise to half a dozen former zoo employees who spoke with the Press, including former herpetology curator Karl Peterson, whose own battles with zoo administration and subsequent firing were chronicled in the May 20, 1999, issue of the Press. Several anonymously confirmed similar experiences, citing the advice of lawyers involved in pending legal action. Their stories, however, are unanimous in their thrust.

"If you're a friend of [Donald Olson's], you're going to get promotions and all that kind of good stuff, and if you're not and you do your job, you're just going to get kicked out and fired. That's the way it works," says one.

"What [Olson] is doing is wrong. It's immoral, it's unethical, it's costing hardships to the employees and to the animals. They will fire people if they can. If they cannot do it legally, then they will just suppress you. I can't begin to tell you how many people have left the zoo because of it. Either they've been forced out directly or the pressure was applied to them," says another.

Laurel Richert, now in Michigan, is one former employee with nothing to lose.

"It was a very long year. It was a very strange place. I loved that job. I would still be there if it hadn't been for the administration. But I really felt like I was being pushed out of there. It's like trying to explain the Stepford Wives or something."

In her exit interview, Richert described her experience at the Houston Zoo as a "very bad one."

It's an assessment reflected in the fact that of 213 positions at the Houston Zoo, a major player in the zoo world, there are presently 35 vacancies. Donald Olson responds to this fact in terms of the molasses-slow hiring procedure for city-funded jobs, which is doubtless a real factor, but which begs the question of why there are so many vacancies in the first place. It is, as even Olson admits, "a big number."

The biggest complaint, at least among "animal people," isn't mistreatment of employees, it's the zoo management's philosophical focus on appearances and fund-raising over the prosaic nuts-and-bolts mechanisms of maintaining a healthy and at least reasonably happy animal population. It's a prioritization -- some would say a mis-prioritization -- that puts potential donors first, and animals last.

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