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Published: Friday, 5/13/2005

Task force hits a wall with silent zoo staffers

BY TAD VEZNER
BLADE STAFF WRITER

The imposed silence at the Toledo Zoo involving several high-profile animal deaths has grown to cover even more zoo employees.

When interviewed earlier this week by the county task force examining zoo operations, several key zoo employees refused to speak in detail about the animal deaths, saying they were not allowed to talk about any issue involving ex-zoo head veterinarian Dr. Tim Reichard.

Those issues, the zoo employees said, included the 2000 death of a sloth bear that was denned without water and the 2001 death of a giraffe.

Task force member Susan Orosz, who conducted interviews with the zoo employees, said the position surprised her.

We were kind of stuck. Our mouths were kind of open, she said after a task force meeting last night. We heard from Dr. Tim s testimony, then you want to see what the other people thought about that incident, and then Whammo, you can t talk about those high-profile situations.

The task force was created by Lucas County commissioners following the firing of Dr. Reichard. Task force members were charged with examining all aspects of zoo operations.

Dr. Reichard was terminated as the zoo s head veterinarian in late February because of what zoo management claimed were administrative issues. Dr. Reichard said he was targeted because he spoke frankly to U.S. Department of Agriculture officials during a surprise inspection in 2004.

Last month, Dr. Reichard signed an agreement with the zoo board prohibiting him from talking about animal care issues in exchange for around $127,000 for an 18-month consultant position. Before that agreement was signed, he d spoken with the task force for an hour and a half.

According to Ms. Orosz, the zoo s current veterinarian, Wynona Shellabarger, as well as all the zoo s head curators, told her that zoo administrators told them the agreement also muzzled them from speaking about any animal care issue involving Dr. Reichard.

The legal agreement states that the zoo s Board of Directors and management shall not discuss their opinions of the conditions of Dr. Reichard s termination or reinstatement, the quality of his performance as a zoo employee to any third party, and that the zoo board shall not encourage zoo employees, consultants, and volunteers to discuss in any manner any of the issues listed above.

But it doesn t mention zoo employees outside of management not being allowed to speak.

Zoo board president Stephen Staelin and chief operating officer Robert Harden did not return calls for comment.

Task force member Dr. Richard Ruppert said that zoo employees should be able to talk about those incidents without mentioning Dr. Reichard.

The doctor s not the only one at the hospital, he said. He also added that discussions specifically about Dr. Reichard could now be counterproductive.

Task force member Richard Anderson said the task force should focus on recommendations concerning current situations at the zoo.

Dredging all this stuff up is not going to help us, and we haven t got the time to deal with all this stuff, he said. Let s get down to brass tacks.

Task force chair Marty Skeldon said after the meeting that he thought subcommittee members should investigate in the manner they see fit.

It s up to the different subcommittees to continue their investigation. If they decide they should go back to the past to move forward, then that s what will happen.

Contact Tad Vezner at:tvezner@theblade.com or 419-724-6050.



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