Bungle in the Jungle

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

 The daily report for the Houston Zoological Gardens' small-mammal building, dated Friday, November 6, 1998, notes "gas smell in north section" and indicates that a maintenance worker arrived with a detector, which read negative for natural gas. Again the next day, the daily report notes a gas smell in the morning hours. Yet again, on Monday, November 16, the daily report makes mention of a visiting veterinarian noticing a gas smell and reporting it to zoo management. Construction was going on nearby, and the vet wondered if perhaps a line had been nicked. The next written report was initialed on December 12. "Heater in nocturnal section not working properly. Is blowing cold air. Gas smell by exhibit." The same report noted a morning temperature of 67 degrees in the rain forest exhibit, where a sloth baby was "sounding congested." Finally, on March 16, 1999, more than four months after the first written report, a zoo visitor sniffed the gas smell in the air and went to the administration building to report it. Entex was called out. The building was evacuated (of humans, not of the smaller mammals). Entex turned the gas line off at the meter.

Within a matter of days, keeper Reba Tucker remembers (and her story is corroborated by co-workers who prefer to remain anonymous), a meeting was called wherein small-mammal senior keeper Tonya "Tinker" Boyd accused her underlings of failing to report the gas leak. And so on March 23, three outraged keepers got together to compile their records. Their report for that day reads as follows: "There's no hot water for washing due to the gas being turned off as a result of the gas leak in this building which was documented on the daily report and reported to supervisors on November 16, 1998, November 8, 1998, November 7, 1998, November 6, 1998, and December 12, 1998, and this does not include many verbal reports to and from curator, supervisor and other zoo employees, contrary to what senior keeper TB [Tonya Boyd] previously stated in our small mammal meeting on Friday, March 19, 1999."

This report was signed by all three keepers, but it was not signed, as would be standard, by supervisor Boyd. Instead, say Tucker and others, Boyd refused to allow her employees to turn in their report, and tossed it in the trash.

"Animal person?" Zoo general manager Donald Olson.
"Animal person?" Zoo general manager Donald Olson.
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.
In better days: Reba Tucker feeds a paca.
Courtesy of Reba Tucker
In better days: Reba Tucker feeds a paca.

Zoo general manager Donald Olson maintains that the gas smell prompted an "immediate response," and furthermore, that there was, technically speaking, no gas leak.

"We had Entex out at one time to find a gas leak. Never found a gas leak. Turns out it was flue gas off one furnace which had remained off."

A spokesperson for Entex, meanwhile, quotes service records of the utility's March 16 visit to the zoo, to opposite effect. Technically speaking: "We did find a natural gas leak on their house line. Whether or not there was flue gas maybe from a furnace or something, I don't know."

That incident, according to an alarming number of current and former members of zoo staff, is a nutshell illustration of ongoing problems at the Houston Zoo: animals and staff shortchanged by an arrogant administration most concerned with propping up the facades that foster positive public perception, while behind the scenes, animal diets are shorted, animals grow neurotic from cramped quarters and poor management, and keepers do their work trapped between concern for the well-being of their charges and fear of retaliation if they should be so bold as to question management's wisdom.

Let the public complain, and the cavalry attacks the problem, guns blazing. But let a complaint be aired by a zoo employee, and that employee, many say, can expect pointed harassment and "termination."

Fear at the zoo, like natural gas, has a smell that's slowly leaking out of the back rooms and into the open spaces, where some unsuspecting member of the public, sooner or later, is bound to take notice.

The Houston Zoo finds itself at a crossroads. On one hand, the zoo is on the verge of announcing an ambitious 20-year "master plan" of extensive renovations and new construction -- and a concurrent capital campaign aimed at raising some $150 million with which to carry out these projects -- designed to lead the 85-year-old zoo (which relocated from its original site in Sam Houston Park to Hermann Park in 1922) toward that elusive grail of all ambitious Houston institutions: "world-class" status.

When and if the master plan is completed, animal exhibits presently organized by species will migrate to nine new exhibits, or "biomes," based on geographical areas of the world, so that, Zoological Society executive director Mary Ann Newman explains, "we can show the relationship between the species of a region, plants and the culture." The first scheduled biome of the master plan, an Arctic Wilderness exhibit, will boast polar bears housed in a wholly refrigerated environment.

On the other hand, the city controller's office is on the verge of finalizing a performance audit of the city's Parks & Recreation Department, of which the zoo is a component, and the draft of that audit, as obtained by the Press, raises a number of issues suggesting basic institutional shortcomings that will need to be addressed before anyone can reasonably use the words "Houston Zoo" and "world-class" in the same sentence.

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."

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.

"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.

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.

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.

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.

"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.

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.

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.

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

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