Bungle in the Jungle

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

"The principal purpose of doing anything around here is to satisfy donors," says Nelson Herwig. "To encourage more funding. And I don't quarrel with that. We do need donor funding. But not as a priority. So it's a major philosophical difference there in what is important. Basically there is a general perception among zoo staff that the needs of the animals are secondary to obtaining donor dollars.

"I don't quarrel with the need for expansion, but if we have x-number of dollars in the budget, then something has to be cut. Rather than holding back until we do have the amount of dollars to do it right, we cut it, but we don't cut the appearance. We cut the services. We cut the husbandry aspects. That's always what suffers."

Case in point: last year's much-hyped koala acquisition from the San Diego Zoo.

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

Koalas are not technically endangered. Their housing requirements -- no dirt floors, full climate control, no botanicals growing within the exhibit -- are a poor match with the Houston Zoo's vegetatively lush layout, not to mention the master plan's vision of integrated biomes. But koalas are cute and cuddly and easily convertible to the plush toys lining the shelves of the freshly built gift shop into which the koala exhibit feeds. Furthermore, the 40-member board of the Zoological Society, which runs the gift shop and other zoo concessions, was so excited about the prospect of koalas that it offered to pony up the money out of its own pocket. It agreed to pay a required $10,000 annual conservation fee, indefinitely. It convinced society partner Continental Airlines to fly in eucalyptus feed from Arizona twice a week, indefinitely. And after a brief period, during which the society board paid the cost of the eucalyptus itself, the zoo recently convinced City Council to approve the payment, out of city tax coffers, of a three-year eucalyptus budget in the neighborhood of $280,000. That same amount of money, just for comparison's sake, could pay the salaries of four zoo keepers over the same amount of time, with lunch money left over.

If the koalas stick around long enough to be moved into the proposed Australian biome, at least ten years away, and assuming Continental stays on board and food prices remain stable, they'll have cost the Zoological Society $100,000 in conservation fees, and taxpayers close to another $100,000 in feed.

Meanwhile, according to the performance review draft, animals in the small-mammal building are receiving less food on a daily basis than even the zoo's own diet sheets recommend. In two cages where a daily allowance of 13.35 ounces of food were indicated, only 7.5 ounces were actually fed. In another cage where 19.35 ounces were indicated, only 9.7 ounces were fed.

"We really disagree with parts of that," says Olson. "We disagree with the exhibit that they used, and the information there has more to do with the issue of who maintains the diet cards and who evaluates the diets. But in essence we don't agree that that chart [on which the comparisons are based] is the correct document."

Olson makes the argument that what the draft finding actually reflects is the system by which food is physically delivered from the commissary to the cage, and he acknowledges that sometimes delivery mistakes are made, but that such mistakes can be and are easily corrected with a phone call, "like a restaurant bringing you the wrong order, and then fixing it."

Olson does allow that there are sometimes disagreements between keepers and veterinary staff over the appropriate amount of food for individual animals ("I like to feed my dog more and you like to feed your dog lessŠ") but says that there are established standards, and that the standards are consistent with what the animals actually get.

Still, that explanation doesn't jibe with the auditor's finding that "[t]wo of the five curators interviewed Š expressed dissatisfaction with the quality and quantity of food for the animals."

Anecdotal evidence also supports the charge that certain animals are getting short shrift. Several keepers admitted to the Press to being so concerned over the quantity of animal diets that they purchased food with their own money and fed it to their charges on the sly, even though doing so could constitute grounds for firing.

Keepers say that animal diet changes at the zoo began around 1994, when zoo veterinarians began promoting the use of generic nutritional Mazuri-brand "biscuits" over fresh produce and insects, which have since been largely relegated to use in "enrichment" programs designed to encourage certain behaviors. Numerous daily reports reflect keepers' findings that animals disliked the chalky biscuits and often did not eat them. Reba Tucker recalls being told to give it time, that the animals would eat the biscuits when they got hungry enough.

According to Tucker and others, requests for diet increases for pregnant animals are routinely denied, an action that in the eyes of some keepers amounts to animal cruelty.

Also bordering on cruelty are reports of thoughtless isolation of social animals and overcrowding of others. Tucker reports, and a co-worker confirms, that a mother genet, a catlike animal, and her two infant babies were confined within a shift cage about the size of an animal transport cage while curatorial staff decided where to put them. A shift cage is designed to hold animals for the amount of time that it takes a keeper to clean the display glass and remove animal feces from the cage. The genets lived in this box, with food and water dishes and litter, for over three months.

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