With a recent history of bookkeeping and management problems and a spate of 10 animal deaths - some in situations that suggest negligence and poor oversight - the Chattanooga Zoo is rightly under scrutiny. So it's good to learn that the Friends of the Zoo, the entity that assumed operational control of the zoo in September under a contract with the city, has hired a consulting firm to pinpoint what's wrong with the zoo's operations and how its management should be changed.
The consulting firm, Schultz & Williams, won't be alone in its mission. The board of the Friends of the Zoo, which was formed in 1985 to help improve and support the zoo, has also asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Association of Zoos and Aquariums to investigate and report on conditions at the zoo. In addition, the board is awaiting reports on necropsies of the seven animals that died in the span of a month over December and January.
There is ample ground to plow. The zoo has lost its most notable and long-lived star, Hank, a 42-year-old chimpanzee under circumstances that raise questions about the chimpanzee's care for diabetes from a new keeper. There are also questions to be answered about the deaths of two of a snow leopard's three new cubs; they were found outside stillborn after the leopard reportedly was locked out of her den in inclement weather.
Two marmoset monkeys died after missing food and water between one and four-and-a-half days, depending who's speaking. A Friends of the Zoo board member and veterinarian said preliminary reports indicated the marmosets had a type of hepatitis that is spread by mice.
A USDA inspection found mouse droppings in various places in the spider monkey's indoor housing building, and too little hay for grazing animals one day. Zoo keeper John Urstadt told reporters for this newspaper that the zoo's conspicuous mice and rat problem around the animal feed room is well known. The correlation between the vermin problem and the welfare of the zoo's animals clearly needs to be determined, and the vermin problem eliminated.
A female muntjack, a small Asian deer, died after struggling in a koi pond. A former zoo worker contacted by this newspaper claims the deer may have been panicked by a visitor's dog - whose presence was unsupervised by zoo keepers - while the deer was locked out of its enclosed pen so the public could see it during a Holiday Lights event at the zoo.
Another claim by Urstadt begs probing. He told this newspaper that staff turnover has left the zoo with too many new keepers who are not yet trained well enough to provide adequate care. Though he praised zoo director Darde Long; her husband, Rick Jackson, Curator of Ecotherms and Exhibits, and others for the progress of the zoo in the past, he said further improvements are needed.
Staffing issues may have arisen when the city turned the zoo over to the Friends of the Zoo, and some veteran staff members shifted to other city jobs to keep their city benefits and pension. If there is a notable gap in pay and benefits for zoo personnel, it needs to be addressed in favor of keeping competent and caring zoo keepers.
The issues raised by the zoo's recent animal deaths merits close attention. Animals taken from their natural habitats and ecosystems and kept in zoos for the public's benefit depend entirely on their keepers for their food, safety and sound welfare. If humans fall short on that responsibility, the Friends of the Zoo should be prepared to make things right.
Board member and veterinarian Mickey Myers said Tuesday "that everything's on the table here - from pay scales to job descriptions to see if we need to terminate some people." The board will have to hold to that position if the Friends of the Zoo is maintain its credibility.