Out at the Zoo

Embattled director Olson departs as signs of reform arrive

On Tuesday of last week, Houston's Parks and Recreation Department announced the retirement of Houston Zoo director Donald Olson, who has held the post since 1993. Olson stated that he was leaving the zoo "to pursue interests in the private sector," that he is "excited about a change" and that he leaves "knowing the zoo is in good shape."

The announcement's timing, however, suggests that Olson's departure may not be as simple as all that.

As reported in the Houston Press last November 25 ["Bungle in the Jungle," by Brad Tyer], a then-forthcoming city audit of the Parks Department and zoo operations found animal diets that had been cut -- in some cases halved -- from the zoo's own recommended levels, inadequate animal quarantine space and shoddy maintenance procedures resulting in a long-unaddressed gas leak. A Press investigation revealed a steady bleed of employees leaving the zoo and chronic morale problems among many who stayed on. All this just as the zoo was set to embark on a $150 million capital campaign to fund an ambitious 20-year master plan of improvements and expansion.

After a negative city audit, zoo director Olson retires.
After a negative city audit, zoo director Olson retires.

Sources inside the zoo say that Olson was stung by the audit's findings and that the Press article was quoted frequently at subsequent staff meetings geared toward addressing the issues it raised.

Prior to 1993 Olson had directed the city's Parks Department for ten years before taking a "voluntary" demotion to zoo director. Olson attributed the transfer to health problems, but he also had been under fire for his involvement in a scandal involving department oversight of $18.8 million in park improvement bonds, substandard playground equipment and lax inventory controls.

By many accounts Olson, a landscape architect by training and bureaucrat by practice, failed to win many popularity contests among the rank-and-file zoo staff. The self-described "animal people," who worked in cages, not offices, found his management style autocratic, and even retaliatory.

Olson did not return phone calls for comment.

But change, sources say, did seem to be in the wind. Prior to the publication of the Press feature, senior veterinarian Joe Flanagan had held sole control over animal diets -- a sticking point among some curators, who felt diets in their sections were inappropriate. Critics said that Flanagan, by entering into a contract with Mizura brand foods, had discounted the expertise of curators and keepers in favor of recommendations made by the Purina subsidiary. Since the article's publication, sources say, Flanagan has decentralized controls so that any of the zoo's veterinary staff may determine the type of food for animals. The zoo has also inaugurated an independent study of animal diets.

Another marked change, says one zoo employee, is indicated by a recent series of meetings among zoo management, senior staff and employees. The meetings are designed to allow zoo workers to air grievances and make recommendations to management. At least one source judges these bull sessions to be a good-faith move on management's part to be more responsive to the needs of zoo staff.

"Nobody's ever listened before," the worker explains. "We feel that we're actually being listened to [now]."

Reforms, however, may have arrived too little and too late. Sources report that representatives of the city's Human Resources Department, the Parks Department and the mayor's office had started attending zoo meetings, with the implication that higher-ups were keeping a closer eye on zoo operations in the wake of the audit findings. And just two weeks before the announcement of Olson's resignation, former zoo keeper Reba Tucker filed a whistle-blower suit against the city. She had resigned January 7 after 24 weeks of city-approved leave for job-related stress.

Tucker says she was targeted for negative work evaluations after she raised internal questions about a curator's position that was being held simultaneously by two employees.

Olson's retirement is effective in May, just four months before the zoo is scheduled for a reaccreditation inspection by the American Zoo and Aquarium Association. Accreditation allows the zoo to participate in AZA animal exchange and conservation programs, and AZA guidelines require that zoos have directors in place for a minimum of six months prior to the accreditation date. An AZA representative says that upon formal notification of Olson's departure, the zoo will be granted an automatic extension of its accreditation to September 2001, as long as the zoo has a new director in place by March of that year. The Parks Department has already announced a national search to fill the position.

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

 
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