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Published: Tuesday, 3/22/2005

It's a jungle out there

THE task force named to investigate the managerial morass at the Toledo Zoo will have much more to deal with than the firing of a veterinarian. It needs to search for ways to fix a beloved institution.

As they deliberate, task force members must never forget one thing: animals have died and the U.S. Department of Agriculture has found troubling deficiencies.

The 14 members of the committee, appointed by the Lucas County commissioners, are an able, decent group who should not be preoccupied strictly with the personnel matters that have sparked controversy and led to the fact-finding effort.

Indeed, the firing of Dr. Tim Reichard, head veterinarian for more than 22 years, may be only one aspect of a host of far-reaching issues affecting one of Toledo's most treasured tax-supported entities.

In order to perform a truly independent and useful service to the community, the task force must subject all aspects of the zoo operation to investigation, with an eye toward making recommendations to rectify the situation as soon as possible.

And we are confident that the appointees are ready to do that. They include Marty Skeldon, whose grandfather Frank and father Phil led the zoo in one capacity or another for nearly 70 years. They also include prominent businessman Richard Anderson; Dr. Richard Ruppert, retired president of the Medical College of Ohio, and Lloyd Mahaffey, regional director of the United Auto Workers.

The committee also includes our colleague, outdoors writer Steve Pollick, whose commitment to animal welfare and the environment cannot be challenged, and local attorney and port authority board member R. Michael Frank, whose reputation as an independent voice in this community is secure.

It is a diverse group, and one which should not succumb to the temptation to automatically defend the pattern of leadership of William Dennler, director, and Robert Harden, chief operating officer.

Obviously, it will not be a function of the committee to decide if the zoo has problems. Those are already established. The panel's job is to stand as the conscience of the community as it looks for solutions, without regard for who might be hurt.

While it is true that the zoo has expanded its physical plant and greatly modernized its mode of exhibiting animals under Mr. Dennler's 25-year tenure, it is also true that the zoo had a national reputation for quality before he arrived on the scene.

It is fairly obvious that the zoo's upper management has been laboring to build an insulary bureaucracy, one whose response to internal problems was to employ an aggressive consultant, Scott Warrick. That amounts to an admission of failure.

While Mr. Warrick's contract has been terminated - although only after Blade reporters questioned his role in the controversy - his part in fomenting anger, unrest, and backbiting among zoo employees cannot now be swept away.

In trying to repair broken management structures in large organizations, consultants often take on impossible jobs, but sometimes, as illustrated by Mr. Warrick's unhappy tenure, they just make destructive situations worse.

If the public could trust the zoo's board of directors to straighten all this out internally, there would be no need for a citizens' committee. Toledoans love their zoo, with its natural African savanna display, lively atmosphere, and nostalgic architecture, and taxpayers have supported it with virtually a blank check in passing tax levies.

But now the community, which takes more pride in the Toledo Zoo than perhaps any other local institution, is shocked to discover that the zoo has lost its way. One thing is certain: As Toledoans learn more about the zoo's difficulties, they won't be in any mood to support even a revered institution with more tax levies until valid remedies are in place.



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