Bungle in the Jungle

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

Of course most people who aren't zoo keepers don't know what a genet is, much less a cottontop tamarind or a prevost squirrel or any number of not-quite-sexy members of the Houston Zoo's extensive animal collection. If these animals are mismanaged, even if their largely invisible handlers are mismanaged, it's not likely to have much of an impact on a public -- and a donor pool -- enamored of fuzzy koalas, or the prospect of refrigerated polar bears, or genuinely successful conservation efforts such as the zoo's Atwater Prairie Chicken program.

As long as the zoo is lucky enough to escape a high-profile animal death or a damaging lawsuit, the money will likely continue to flow in from donors bolstered by a strong local economy and a popular image of the zoo as an urban idyll nestled in the shade of Hermann Park. Certainly private donors mean no harm in supporting the zoo, with its nobly stated mission to create a "living classroom to teach the community about the impact of humans on the animal world."

But those with the best view of zoo operations -- the paid and volunteer staff who care for the animals daily, for little money and even less acclaim, only to see their best efforts met with stonewalling and retaliation, and their animal charges selectively cared for -- continue to wonder who's really learning what at the Houston Zoo.

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

E-mail Brad Tyer at brad.tyer@houstonpress.com.

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