USDA to probe zoo problems

USDA to probe zoo problems

January 26th, 2011 by Pam Sohn in News

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.

Staff Photo by Angela Lewis/Chattanooga Times Free Press...

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:

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

Staff Photo by Angela Lewis/Chattanooga Times Free Press...

• 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.

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