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Published: Tuesday, 2/14/2006

Zoo leader asks to drive Jeep Liberty

BY JENNI LAIDMAN
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Baker Baker
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Give me Liberty! That's the call of the Toledo Zoo's new executive director.

A Jeep Liberty, that is.

Responding to controversies surrounding the zoo in the last year, Anne Baker told the zoo's board of directors she would take the Toledo-made vehicle as part of her $200,000 salary-and-benefits package. The contract included an American-made vehicle of her choice.

"I just need to see what colors they come in,'' she said. "I like green."

She also told the board she is turning down its offer of a membership at a social club. "I'm going to do it on my own,'' she said.

Public ire exploded last year when people learned the zoo's former executive director, William Dennler, and the zoo's No. 2 man, Robert Harden, both drove 2005 Volvos that together cost about $67,500.

Mr. Dennler's zoo-provided club membership also met criticism. That membership cost nearly $8,000.

Ms. Baker is in town only for the week. The PhD primatologist was recruited from the Rosamond Gifford Zoo in Syracuse, N.Y, where she was executive director. Yesterday was her first board meeting.

She starts at Toledo's zoo full time April 1, when she will quickly take on another potential controversy in the form of a group that calls itself Citizens for a Responsible Toledo Zoo.

The citizens group is unhappy with the zoo's response to recommendations by a Lucas County commissioners-appointed task force, which reviewed zoo operations in the wake of widespread criticism of the institution last year and made extensive recommendations.

This week, the citizens group published what it called an analysis of the zoo's response to those recommendations. Ms. Baker said she heard from the group last week.

"I'll be meeting with that group in April, listening to their concerns to try to see where we have some parallel goals, and working with them to achieve those goals."

But she added, "Right now, my focus is really on staff. I think out of respect for the staff, I have to meet with them first, also so I can get a good internal perspective."

Steve Staelin, zoo board president, said the zoo's administrative staff will examine the citizens group's report.

He said the zoo will provide county commissioners its second quarterly update on its fulfillment of task force recommendations Feb. 24.

"We're working hard with the [county] commissioners to adopt most of the recommendations," Mr. Staelin said.

But Mr. Staelin said he is suspicious of the citizens group's origins and intent. So far, only three members have been identified publicly, and one of those, Debra Reichard Klein, is the sister of Dr. Tim Reichard.

It was Dr. Reichard's firing last February that threw the zoo into a controversy leading to the resignation of Mr. Dennler and the formation of the task force.

"You've got a group that's basically representing somebody who is hiding behind the group," Mr. Staelin said.

But Ms. Klein said her brother has nothing to do with the group. She said while she couldn't make citizens committee members names public, "I can assure you they're more in number, and more diverse, than the Toledo Zoo board of directors."

Tina Skeldon Wozniak, president of the county commissioners, said she met with citizens group members and will "encourage the zoo board to listen to their concerns."

Though the citizens group report goes through task force recommendations point by point, much of the report is framed as questions. One focus of the report is the zoo board's animal care committee. The report questions the committee's composition, its independence, and whether it is meeting monthly.

A new issue raised in citizens group's report are questions about whether the zoo should have elephants - an issue the task force never raised.

"Do the benefits of having elephants at our zoo outweigh the associated costs and risks," the citizens' report asks. "Is this the best use of the zoo's limited resources? ... Is the Toledo Zoo geographically situated to best contribute to this species' conservation?"

The citizens group continues to object to the fact that the zoo failed to hire a chief veterinarian from outside the zoo as the task force recommended.

The citizens group also protests the fact that the mammal department hasn't been divided into two separate departments - large mammals and small mammals - as was recommended.

County Commissioner Maggie Thurber said the county commissioners have no authority to make the zoo comply with task force recommendations.

The complete citizens group's report is available online at www.responsiblezoo.org.

Contact Jenni Laidman at:

jenni@theblade.com

or 419-724-6507.


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