Council to take up zoo director's lease

Council to take up zoo director's lease

April 4th, 2011 by Pam Sohn in News

Tucked at the end of Brown Acres Golf Course sits a ramshackle barn with windblown tin on the roof and one end open to the elements, closed only with lattice fence.

From Interstate 75's southbound lane, the barn is a landmark - especially when South Chickamauga Creek floods around it like a moat.

But the barn isn't empty.

There are animals inside - dogs, 12 to 19 of them, depending on the time.

The animals belong to Zoo Director Darde Long, according to her and to McKamey Animal Care and Adoption Center inspection records.

For the past several years, Long has leased the barn from the city for $200 a month. On Tuesday, a resolution will be before the City Council to renew that lease.

Long and her husband, Rick Jackson, curator of Ectotherms & Exhibits at the zoo, say many of the dogs are pit-bull mixes that they found as strays. Some were castoffs, found chained to the zoo's fence when Long or other zookeepers came to work some mornings, she said.

"I have too big a heart," she said Friday, adding that she would always try to clean the dogs up, get them healthy, then find homes for them. But some, because of their breed or age or condition, were not adoptable.

"So we kept them," she said.

Neighbors concerned about the dogs contacted the Chattanooga Times Free Press after news broke that 10 zoo animals died between late November and January.

One neighbor, who asked not to be named, said she talked to Long once about the dogs. She said she was calmed because Long was a zoo director.

But that was before the zoo animal deaths came to light and U.S. Department of Agriculture inspectors found violations at the Warner Park facility. The inspector cited improper handling of marmosets (monkeys) and a pregnant snow leopard who lost two cubs, as well as a shortage of hay and other problems.

Later, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums faulted the zoo in the deaths of two tortoises but called six of eight other zoo animal deaths between Dec. 10 and Jan. 24 "an unfortunate series of unrelated events."

AZA continued the zoo's accreditation but plans a recheck in September.

Another barn neighbor, who also didn't want her name used, also expressed concern about the dogs.

"She might think she's saving them," the neighbor said. "But they never get to come out of that barn. What kind of life is that? It just makes me sad."

Brown Acres superintendent Pat Skinner said he'd been at the course for 14 years and never heard anyone complain about Long's dogs.

"I've never actually seen them. But I've heard them barking," he said. "There's people that come there at least twice a day. If they let them out, they don't let them out during the day."

Long defended her care of the dogs. She has declined several times to allow a Times Free Press photographer into the barn to photograph the dogs, but her husband allowed a reporter in on the same day McKamey made an announced inspection in February.

The dogs were clean and appeared well-fed, well-mannered and happy to have attention.

Jackson introduced each by name and said he and Long pay for all their care, food and bedding. Most are kept in pairs in closed horse stalls.

"Yes, it's cold or hot in here, but they are used to it. It's better than them wandering the streets, or worse," Jackson said.

He said the dogs also are allowed to run in the open breezeway inside the barn and to a fenced outside area at the breezeway's rear. The area is about 14 feet by 14 feet.

Karen Walsh, McKamey's executive director, said Long has a multi-pet license for 19 dogs.

The most recent inspection at the barn and permit approval on Feb. 7 listed 19 dogs ranging in age from 2 years to 12 years.

Their veterinarian is listed as Mickey Myers, a trustee of the Friends of the Zoo, the organization contracted last fall by the city to operate the zoo.