published Wednesday, January 26th, 2011

USDA to probe zoo problems

  • photo
    Staff Photo by Angela Lewis/Chattanooga Times Free Press Zoo worker Paul Bond feeds apples to white-tail deer Tuesday in the petting zoo at the Chattanooga Zoo.

The federal agency charged with animal welfare in zoos, USDA's Animal and Plan Health Inspection Service, will be looking into allegations of problems at the Chattanooga Zoo at Warner Park.

"We received an anonymous complaint and entered it into our complaint log on Jan. 14, 2011," said David Sacks, spokesman for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. "We will handle this as we would any other formal complaint. We will send an inspector to the facility to look into the allegations contained in the complaint."

Darde Long, director of the Chattanooga Zoo at Warner Park, said the zoo welcomes the oversight and also has asked USDA to come in and do an inspection.

"We did it to be proactive," Long said.

The zoo has had seven animal deaths in the past month, including Hank -- the zoo's famous chimpanzee and longtime resident -- whose former keeper says the ape was healthy in May.

Keeper John Urstadt is one of several former zoo employees who have told the Chattanooga Times Free Press that the zoo's recent transition from city management to oversight by the Friends of the Zoo -- a nonprofit group created in 1985 and dedicated to maintaining the zoo -- has left the zoo without experienced and caring keepers.

Urstadt said he believes the recent deaths were due to "neglect of the animals."

In all of 2010, the zoo had only 10 deaths, according to Robin Derryberry, the zoo spokeswoman and a board member of Friends of the Zoo.

The zoo veterinarian, Tony Ashley, was unavailable for comment, but veterinarian and zoo board secretary Mickey Myers said the spate of deaths is circumstance.

"It's just like family can go a long time without any deaths then have three in a short time," Myers said.

Ashley is a veterinarian associate in Myers' firm, Animal Clinic Inc. on East 23rd Street.

In addition to Hank, who Myers said appears to have died from heart problems, these animals also died in recent weeks:

  • photo
    Staff Photo by Angela Lewis/Chattanooga Times Free Press Chimpanzees lounge on rocks in the Gombe Interpretive Center at the Chattanooga Zoo.

• A male muntjac, a small type of Asian deer, died last month after a visitor to Holiday Lights at the Chattanooga Zoo noticed he was struggling in the koi pond.

• Two marmosets (monkeys) died after missing food and water for what Long said was one day, but former staff members said was 41/2 days. Myers said preliminary necropsy reports indicate the monkeys had a form of hepatitis that is spread by mice.

• A female muntjac that Long said died from a twisted intestine.

• Two cub snow leopards that were stillborn or died shortly after they were born outside in freezing temperatures. Former staff members said the cat was locked outside her shelter.

Long said the cat was outside, but she took exception to the term locked out. When keepers opened the door to the den, she said, they noticed the leopard having a contraction as she went into shelter and saw blood on her. They began looking around and found two dead cubs. The third and still-living cub was born inside the den.

Questions and complaints

Urstadt said the chimp, 42, should have lived another decade or more.

"Hank was not old for a chimp in captivity. He should have lived until he was 50 or 60," said Urstadt, who left the zoo in May and plans to open his own facility in Florida. "Hank was a depressed chimp because he was never allowed to interact with others of his kind."

A physical in June found that Hank was diabetic. Urstadt said he was told that Hank's new keeper took vacation several weeks ago and returned to find the chimp comatose after not receiving his insulin properly.

Hank was found dead Monday morning and Urstadt noted that a substitute keeper also was working this weekend.

Urstadt said Long's husband, Rick Jackson, is the zoo's new deputy director who normally would be in charge of substitute schedules. Jackson formerly was the zoo's maintenance director.

Long said another member of her administrative team made the substitute schedules, not her husband, and she denied Tuesday that Hank was found comatose in the first incident. The ape did have a day when he clearly did not feel well, she said, and he did have a day without medication because of a "misnotation."

"Humans make mistakes. But his insulin and diabetes was very well controlled," Long said.

An e-mail to the Times Free Press from a former zoo worker who asked not to be named said the male muntjac's death occurred when the animals were locked out of their cages for the Holiday Lights at the Zoo fundraiser because visitors want to see animals.

"During the event there were dogs in the zoo being walked by their owners without any keepers patrolling the zoo for incidents. ... It is believed ... this animal was spooked by dogs barking at it near its exhibit and was not allowed access inside and began to panic, had a seizure and fell into the pond," the e-mail states.

Oversight and inspections

An internal audit by the city released in March 2010 found the zoo's financial operations were "chaotic."

The report portrayed a zoo that operated on two sets of books -- one funded by the city and the other funded by the Friends group. According to the report, zoo operations:

• Were not in compliance with applicable laws and regulations.

• Did not have policies and procedures in place to ensure city assets and funds are protected and well-managed.

• Had an operational structure that was not efficient and effective.

The audit led to the city turning control of the zoo over to the Friends organization.

Richard Beeland, spokesman for Mayor Ron Littlefield, said the city contracted the Friends organization to run the zoo and leased the property to the organization.

The city still owns the zoo, however, and paid the Friends organization $658,577 from the 2011 budget.

Zoo facts

History -- The zoo started operations in 1937 with two monkeys

Visitors -- Last year, more than 247,000 people toured the zoo

Revenues -- Almost $2.4 million in 2008

Animals -- About 200, not counting birds

City funding -- $648,577 in 2011

Friends of the Zoo funding -- $10 million in past decade

Annual budget -- $1.2 million

Source: Chattanooga and Chattanooga Zoo

The audit also found that, while the city was employing Long, the Friends group was paying her a quarterly "bonus" of $3,000.

"The acceptance of this bonus violates city code," the audit states.

Later, under the agreement that passed operations of the zoo to the Friends group, Long now is an employee of the Friends, not the city.

USDA, too, last year found problems at the zoo, including one that former workers have noted recently and that Myers found worrisome when he received the hepatitis finding for the dead marmosets.

USDA's Sept. 29 inspection states that "mouse droppings were found in the spider monkey indoor housing building on the counter adjacent to the sink and food/water bowls and on multiple shelves storing other materials."

Myers said he has asked forensic vets at the University of Tennessee to try to determine whether the monkeys had the hepatitis virus when they were donated to the zoo by a disgruntled owner about a year ago.

"If we have a problem like that, I need to know it," he said.

Urstadt said mice problems at the zoo are no secret.

"The animal feed room is covered up in rats," he said. "Guests would complain about rats running through the zoo."

Urstadt said he knows Long, Jackson and others still at the zoo care about the animals and the facility, but changes need to be made.

When there was debate in the 1980s about closing the zoo, "Darde and Rick saved the zoo," Urstadt said. "They brought it from the 1940s to the 1980s. But it's not the 1980s anymore."

Long had some words, too, for the former workers making allegations.

"The people who really care are the ones who are still here watching over [the snow leopard cub] throughout the night," she said. "The commitment level and passion of this staff has never been stronger. ... It's easy to walk away from a situation. If you care, you stay."

Contact Pam Sohn at or 423-757-6346.

Follow Pam on Facebook by following this link.

about Pam Sohn...

Pam Sohn has been reporting or editing Chattanooga news for 25 years. A Walden’s Ridge native, she began her journalism career with a 10-year stint at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. She came to the Chattanooga Times Free Press in 1999 after working at the Chattanooga Times for 14 years. She has been a city editor, Sunday editor, wire editor, projects team leader and assistant lifestyle editor. As a reporter, she also has covered the police, ...

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zoofriend said...

John Urstadt never cared for his animals. He was always the first out the door at the end of the day. The zoo and the animals are now cared for by a highly experienced and professional staff with many years of working in other AZA institutions as well as degrees in animal husbandry. There are so many mistakes and misrepresentations in this story. Seems the Times Free Press has become a tabloid rather than a serious place for journalism.

January 26, 2011 at 11:28 a.m.
jpo3136 said...

We recognize Darde Long as a leader in our local zoo operations. I don't think anyone is interested in pointing fingers or blaming people over day to day chores and tasks at the zoo.

When I see those audit report bullets in the article, it tells me that in the last round over management events, the zoo was half owned by the city and half surviving on charitable donations.

Then, the city moved to resolve the problem by just writing the check to the people giving the donations. In some respects, this makes sense, as many of the people who have expertise with caring for these intelligent and large animals will probably be a part of Friends of the Zoo.

Meanwhile, notice that we've continued to provide them only about half of what they need. Even if we rely on NGOs, non governmental organizations, like Friends of the Zoo, we still need to carry our weight.

This means funding the zoo to stable levels. For years on end, the City provided roughly half a million for the zoo. We can see that. Now, we find out that a charity has been matching it. That's our day to day answer for how the zoo is paid for.

As it is, we've only been fulfilling half of our requirement to zoo operations.

I take it that the charitable donation half hasn't been funding some magic project, has it? We've been using that to meet basic expenses, haven't we?

We need to take more responsibility. On one hand, we should continue to accept and support the savvy generosity of Friends of the Zoo, but relying on them to keep the lights on is too thin.

That middle bullet, "Did not have policies and procedures in place to ensure city assets and funds are protected and well managed," that means: not paid for right.

When we're relying on charity to panhandle our way into paying half of the bills, that's an example of not protecting the funds. Providing what they need is an example of protecting the necessary funds. We don't have to refuse help; but, are we providing what's needed?

If we set up some skimpy plan to start off the payment system, it's little wonder that managing the assets will be more complicated. The equity is already inconsistent. It's probably the equivalent of living paycheck to paycheck. Meanwhile, costs will be continuous.

We need to support the zoo better. It's a valuable educational and cultural resource. It can be as good as we want it to be, but we have to keep our end up.

City government still looks like its paying out three times as much for golf. The zoo can serve as a valuable place for our students if it is used as an academic asset. And, I'm not just talking about Elementary School field trips, either. We have a lot of students and community members who need to know, and deserve to know, more about large and intelligent animals.

Let's get that paid for right.

January 26, 2011 at 12:29 p.m.

Chattanooga, Tennessee seems ripe for the founding of "Friends of The Citizens, Taxpayers and Property Owners"

January 26, 2011 at 4:41 p.m.
justme2 said...

Certain directors need to be replaced at this zoo ASAP! This zoo needed investigation years ago but no one cared enough. These animals shouldn't have died and wouldn't have if they actually cared. That "e-mail" is correct not lies and the Free Press is reporting the truth, so do some research before taking sides. You will be shocked by the lies that the zoo has told.

You don't have to believe me but having a relative work under that crappy director for several years, I have some insight on what really goes on there.

January 27, 2011 at 9:08 p.m.
Mr_B said...

There seem to be a lot of so called rumors lately about the Chattanooga Zoo. Of course, those of us who have been around a while, remember alot of these rumors. For instance; Animal abuse and animal neglect, have been around since at least the late 80s. Next came underage drinking by the staff and volinteers after the events. Then money started coming up missing in the giftshop. This was cleverly covered up by management. Wonder why.Next , The F.O.Z. employee who was found passed out in his car during work hours. Seems he partook of something a little too much. Now it seems we have another rumor. A former maintenance man with F.O.Z. is now Assistant Director. Can you say nepotism,boys and girls. Im sure with all of his credentials,he will know the proper way to care for exotic animals. Listen folks, What you need to ask is; Who owns the animals in the Chattanooga Zoo. The answer is You do. Demand that better care is taken with your animals.One death is bad, but ten is totally unacceptable.

February 6, 2011 at 8:24 p.m.
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