Many in the tight-knit community of American zoo veterinarians support Dr. Tim Reichard, calling the recently dismissed Toledo Zoo animal doctor one of the most respected figures in their industry.
Dr. Reichard is an "absolute gentleman," said Dr. Christopher Bonar, the associate veterinarian at the Cleveland zoo.
"He's beloved and respected by everyone I know," said Dr. Bonar, who has known Dr. Reichard for a dozen years. "He's extraordinarily well-trained and experienced as well."
Dr. Reichard was dismissed last week after 22 years of service, zoo officials said, because of "concerns" about his administration and management skills. The relationship between the veterinarian and the zoo became strained a year ago after, Dr. Reichard said, he spoke openly with U.S. Department of Agriculture inspectors about problems with animal care at the zoo.
While colleagues like Dr. Bonar characterize Dr. Reichard's firing as "astonishing," they say it is not surprising for disagreements to arise between a veterinarian and zoo management.
"The zoo business in general, because people's emotions tend to run high about animals and their welfare and because it is a small community, it tends to have a lot of politics," said Dr. Bonar, who added that he has not encountered such problems at his own zoo. "So many businesses are about paperwork or industry or goods that don't spawn the type of passion people have for living animals."
Some of the deepest internal power struggles at zoos center around disputes between veterinarians and keepers and curators, said Dr. Philip Robinson, a former director of veterinary services at the San Diego Zoo. Under federal law, every zoo must have an attending veterinarian who is responsible for overseeing the adequacy of animal care.
In Dr. Reichard's case, he claimed certain procedures implemented after a fatal hippo accident were not followed or implemented in a timely manner by keepers.
"This is a classic problem," said Dr. Robinson, who authored the book, Life at the Zoo: Behind the Scenes with the Animal Doctors, and mentored Dr. Reichard when he was an intern at the San Diego Zoo in the 1970s. "The perception that the animal health program should stick to sick animals and leave the other issues to the other people on staff - traditionally, this is sort of a turf battle that has more to do with management style than anything that benefits the animals."
Dr. Wilbur Amand, the executive director of the American Association of Zoo Veterinarians, said communication is essential between administration and veterinarians because elements of animal welfare often overlap from one department to another.
"This can fester for years," Dr. Amand said. "I don't know what is the straw that breaks the camel's back, but this sort of thing will kind of explode. The administration will line up against the veterinarian and dismissal occurs. Oftentimes, the administration tries to make life miserable for the individual, and it takes them off the hot-seat."
After Dr. Reichard shared concerns about the zoo with investigators, zoo administrators proposed in April that he share his attending duties with another veterinarian and the mammal curator. By August, he was replaced as the attending doctor by the other veterinarian, his subordinate, and he had been reprimanded twice.
Dr. Amand, who has worked with Dr. Reichard through the veterinarians association, said he believes zoo officials have "made a grave error in the way they've handled all of this," and he expects there to be repercussions.
"He is just a generally well-liked individual who seems to have the ability to get along with almost anybody within reason," he said. "I don't think that Tim is unwilling or unable to compromise, but I think he draws a line - where he thinks the line ought to be drawn - but if he can't stay above that line, then he's got to make his move."
In 1990, Cincinnati zoo officials retaliated against an animal keeper who told USDA inspectors about unsafe working conditions and poor animal care after a polar bear bit off part of a co-worker's arm. The employee, who sued under the Ohio Whistleblower Protection Act, was transferred to an entry-level position and claimed she was harassed - and eventually forced to resign.
The courts, including the Ohio Supreme Court, ruled in favor of the worker and ordered the zoo to pay $32,700 in lost wages, plus damages for emotional distress and legal fees.
Dr. Mark Campbell, the director of animal health and attending veterinarian at the Cincinnati zoo, who joined the zoo in late 1990 after the incident, said many lessons were drawn from that experience.
"Everybody kind of learned something from that," said Dr. Campbell, who has had a professional relationship with Dr. Reichard, which includes exchanging animals. "We tried to communicate better. You have so many people doing so many things, and people aren't always doing things they should be doing. You try to make sure all the procedures are in place, but it is difficult."
Dr. Campbell said he feels lucky to have open relationships with Cincinnati zoo directors and animal managers, allowing them to bring different perspectives to dealing with problems.
"Animal welfare comes first," he said. "Zoo veterinarians are really the ones who are in charge of that. Veterinarians tend to champion those causes because that is what they are expected to do. You have different perspectives and opinions on those things, but the key is to sit down with all the folks."
He added, "Zoos are complicated organisms and organizations."
Dr. Michael Barrie, the director of animal health at the Columbus Zoo, said he was "surprised and sorry to hear this was going on" with Dr. Reichard. He said Dr. Reichard, whom he's known since the 1980s, is well-respected in the field.
Dr. Barrie said problems differ from zoo to zoo, and communication is the key underlying factor.
"All of us, I would hope, would strive for good communication in all directions within the institution and other agencies," said Dr. Barrie, who worked at the Oklahoma City Zoo for 14 years. "All of it has to do with the local culture and the personalities involved.
"There really is a broad spectrum if you go to the many zoos around the country."
Blade science writer Jenni Laidman contributed to this report.
Contact Steve Eder at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6728.