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Published: Friday, 3/25/2005

Zoo task force sets 100-day target for submitting investigation report

BY STEVE EDER
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Fired Toledo Zoo veterinarian Tim Reichard says the task
force will be  productive and valuable  for the zoo.
Fired Toledo Zoo veterinarian Tim Reichard says the task force will be productive and valuable for the zoo.
RUGGIERO Enlarge

Just shy of a month after the controversial firing of the Toledo Zoo s longtime veterinarian, a task force was convened yesterday to investigate problems at the zoo.

The 14-member committee was established by Lucas County commissioners and charged with probing all aspects of the zoo, including animal care, finances, operations, and leadership.

At its initial meeting, the task force set up four subcommittees and set its sights on a 100-day deadline for submitting a final report.

I love the zoo, said Marty Skeldon, who was elected co-chairman of the committee. In the troubling times they are having, I hope this committee will come up with some solutions that will help them.

Mr. Skeldon s father, Phil, and grandfather, Frank, led the zoo for decades before current zoo Executive Director William Dennler took charge in 1981. Frank Skeldon, a business reporter and editor for The Blade for many years, ran the zoo from 1923 to 1948.

The task force composed of business leaders, educators, animal lovers, and community leaders met for more than 90 minutes at the Lucas County Emergency Services Training Center on Jefferson Avenue near downtown. The task force established four subcommittees to review human relations and operations, governance, animal care, and finances at the zoo.

Much of the discussion during yesterday s meeting focused on concerns about the possible reluctance of zoo employees to testify before the committee because of fear of retribution from zoo officials.

The task force took the advice of a Lucas County assistant prosecutor and decided it would comply with Ohio open meetings laws but called on the zoo s board of directors to agree to allow zoo employees to testify before the committee without fear of retribution.

We want a thorough investigation, but we want it to be transparent, county Commissioner Pete Gerken said after the meeting. There is a challenge when you want people to come forward and testify.

The task force, which is considered a public body because it is acting on a charge from the county commissioners, will meet again at 3 p.m. Thursday at the same location. All of the task force members were present except Stan McCormick, who was unavailable because of a prior commitment.

Robert Reinbolt, a former Toledo city administrator appointed to lead the committee, said he met with Mr. Dennler on Wednesday, and the zoo director pledged the zoo s cooperation with the task force s investigation. With some committee business out of the way after yesterday s meeting, Mr. Reinbolt said he is looking forward to moving forward with the review.

We got some issues we resolved, Mr. Reinbolt said. We have a meeting next week, and people will be here.

County commissioners called for the task force after being deluged with complaints about the firing of Tim Reichard, the zoo s head veterinarian for the last 22 years.

The complaints also were fueled by recent revelations that the zoo s top two executives were being provided luxury Volvos at the zoo s expense after trading in a Jeep and a Dodge.

Zoo administrators said Dr. Reichard was fired because of management and administrative problems, but Dr. Reichard said he believed he was terminated for speaking openly with federal inspectors about animal deaths and animal-care problems at the zoo.

The former zoo vet, who attended yesterday s meeting, said he is optimistic about the prospects of the committee.

From the time I saw it was going to be formed, I thought it would be productive and valuable for the institution to take an outside look, he said. It can only make it better. I was impressed with the diversity of the individuals.

One of the committee members, Lloyd Mahaffey, regional head of the United Auto Workers in Ohio, said the task force needs to begin looking at zoo records.

I ve read enough in the papers to know there are some problems at the zoo, he said during the meeting.

Another task force member, Steve Pollick, The Blade s outdoors editor, said the committee includes people who have experience dealing with large public concerns like the zoo.

I feel comfortable with the other people on the committee, Mr. Pollick said. They want to get things done.

In addition to the board members and county commissioners staff, a handful of members of the community attended yesterday s proceedings.

I ve always been a fan of the zoo, Toledo resident Doris Stifel said after the meeting. It s a shame it has come to this.

The task force has an e-mail address, zootaskforce@co.lucas.oh.us, for members of the community to send inquiries or ask about special issues they would like addressed.

The committee already has heard from dozens of residents of Toledo and Lucas County mostly angry residents calling for more oversight of the zoo, which will receive $11.4 million from Lucas County taxpayers this year.

In an e-mail titled zoogate, James Litwin, who said he was a longstanding zoo member, wrote that he was disgusted with zoo administrators: The recent fiasco with your $145 an hour consultant and the firing of the whistleblowing vet is enough to make one wonder if the chimpanzees could not do a better job of running the place. If anything would make me stop supporting the zoo, it is the attitude of the zoo director and [chief operating officer]. To rent Volvos for themselves in Toledo-Jeep is bad enough, but to be so wasteful with the dollars of the taxpayers is tantamount to being part of the low-down reptile exhibit.

Toledo resident Mario Goveia summed it up more succinctly: Something smells at our Zoo, and it is not just the animal droppings, if you know what I mean.

Contact Steve Eder at: seder@theblade.comor 419-724-6728.



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