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Published: Tuesday, 3/15/2005

Zoo elephant receives improper injection

BY TAD VEZNER
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Toledo Zoo Executive Director William Dennler returned to a workplace menagerie yesterday - but not in his new Volvo.

"The Volvos will remain at our homes until they go back to the dealer," Mr. Dennler said, referring to two 2005 Volvos the zoo leased for him and Robert Harden, the zoo's chief operating officer.

Instead, Mr. Dennler drove his wife's car to work.

But before Mr. Dennler was done with his first day back from the Bahamas - a vacation cut short by controversy back home - a larger problem loomed.

Executive Director William Dennler as he appeared yesterday, his first day back to work after cutting short his Bahamas vacation because of the zoo controversy. He was
met by many problems, from
costly leased cars to the wrong
shot for an elephant.
Executive Director William Dennler as he appeared yesterday, his first day back to work after cutting short his Bahamas vacation because of the zoo controversy. He was met by many problems, from costly leased cars to the wrong shot for an elephant.
Enlarge

Renee, the zoo's 26-year-old African elephant and mother to baby Louie, was mistakenly given an injection she'd never forget.

The elephant was being treated for colic, or digestive problems. In addition to injections of antibiotics and pain relievers, she also was being fed mineral oil.

But yesterday afternoon, one of Renee's zookeepers mistakenly swapped the pain reliever with the oil, injecting the upset elephant's front left leg with around 50 ml of the slick substance.

"She didn't exhibit any immediate effects, just what she normally would from being stuck with a needle," said Wynona Shellebarger, interim head veterinarian serving in lieu of Dr. Tim Reichard, who was fired on Feb. 28 for what the zoo claimed were problems with his management and administrative skills.

He said his firing came after he told federal zoo inspectors about animal-care issues at the zoo.

Ms. Shellebarger said last night the zookeeper discovered the mistake right away and called her. "Our concern was a local tissue reaction. It can certainly be somewhat irritating."

The vet lanced the site of the injection, cutting several inches across, and extracted as much of the oil as possible. She said she will continue to monitor the elephant, and treat her with medication to reduce swelling.

Ms. Shellebarger, who was not present during the injection, said it was not unusual for zookeepers to give injections without veterinarians present.

"It's usually much safer for the keepers to go in and do the injections," she said. "The animals know we're the vets. They see us coming."

Even so, she said, in the future a member of the veterinarian staff will be required to hand syringes to keepers before injections are given to zoo animals.

"We certainly are taking this very seriously, and taking steps to make sure it doesn't happen again," Ms. Shellebarger said.

She said procedures on animal injections would not be worked out for several days. "We'll all have to agree on it," she said.

After the incident, Mr. Dennler said he had confidence in his new interim head veterinarian and all zoo staff members who had a part in the incident. "Fortunately, it was not a serious mistake," he said.

And does he think the incident would have occurred if Dr. Reichard were still on duty? "It could have happened under anybody," he said. "Humans make mistakes. That's not something that's unique to one vet or another."

However, a source close to the zoo said last night that Dr. Reichard would never have allowed such a procedure unless he was present.

Another problem Mr. Dennler faced yesterday was how to deal with the leased Volvos.

The zoo leased the Volvo SUV for Mr. Dennler for $673 a month, putting down $3,000. The zoo also leased a Volvo sedan for second-in-command Mr. Harden for $609 a month.

After a firestorm of criticism from the public and local politicians over the leases and after Mr. Dennler defended them saying Volvos were better than Jeeps, he said yesterday he and Mr. Harden would not be driving the zoo Volvos, but returning them.

"I realize personally that it was a mistake. Volvo is owned by Ford I guess I didn't expect the reaction."

Asked what would happen to the leases on the vehicles, which were arranged through Toledo auto dealer Ed Schmidt, Mr. Dennler said the zoo's finance committee was looking for a way to get out of them or work out a new deal with different cars.

"I think the dealer understands the situation. I think everyone in town understands," he said, adding that he himself would "be happy to pay for the cars" if it came down to it.

Yesterday, he left the zoo's Volvo parked at his home and drove his wife's car to work - a 1995 Volvo sedan.

He said the zoo board's finance committee would also be looking at his entire compensation package - totaling $173,950 this year.

Included in that package is $7,980 in annual membership fees and dues to the Toledo Country Club, which he said is also used by others in the zoo's development department to raise money and garner public support for the zoo.

"That sort of thing is just the way business is done in this town," he said.

The zoo's practice of providing cars and country club memberships to top officials will be one of the things reviewed by a "Special Citizens Task Force" called for Friday by Lucas County commissioners, who said they wanted to examine everything at the zoo from animal care issues to finances.

Last year, county taxpayers provided $11.4 million to the zoo through two levies.

Robert Reinbolt, a former city official who has been appointed by county commissioners to lead the task force, said yesterday the process has begun to select committee members. He said he expects 10 to 15 community members to serve on the committee.

"I want to make sure we have a good diverse background," said Mr. Reinbolt, adding he would not be surprised if experts are asked to address the committee. "I don't want to make it slanted one way or another."

Mr. Reinbolt said Steve Serchuk, a past president of the Toledo Humane Society, would be a member of the committee. He said several other names had been brought up and final decisions are forthcoming.

"He loves animals and he has a lot of interest in other areas," Mr. Reinbolt said of Mr. Serchuk's credentials for joining the task force.

Blade Outdoors Editor Steve Pollick said he has been selected to serve on the task force. Mr. Pollick, who said he is "not a stranger" to the zoo, has received clearance from The Blade to accept the invitation.

"The reason behind asking is that I have had a lot of experiences with wildlife and I've had experience with the zoo," he said. "In the past, I've worked both with Bill Dennler, Tim Reichard, and many other people from the zoo on stories."

Tina Skeldon Wozniak, president of the county commissioners, said she hoped to have the task force selected within a few days, and she would not rule out the possibility that a member of the Skeldon family would be selected. Ms. Wozniak is the granddaughter of Frank Skeldon, the zoo's first director and a former Blade business editor.

Mr. Dennler said he welcomed the task force. "I think it's great. We've never had any secrets at the zoo."

When asked to describe his first day back from vacation, Mr. Dennler let out a sigh: "Pretty hectic. I had a meeting today with a number of staff, just to try to get them to calm down.

"There's a lot of pride in this institution, and nobody's talking about the good things the zoo has done," Mr. Dennler said.

Blade staff writer Steve Eder contributed to this report.

Contact Tad Vezner at:

tvezner@theblade.com

or 419-724-6050



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