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Published: Thursday, 3/10/2005

After visit by USDA, zoo leaders sought out a 'disgruntled' worker

BY JENNI LAIDMAN
BLADE SCIENCE WRITER

When the Toledo Zoo received a critical federal report in February after an inspection by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, zoo officials began a campaign to find out why they were under such scrutiny.

After the inspection, zoo administrators began looking into why they were investigated, and what was behind the investigators' "aggressive tone."

Tim Reichard, the zoo's chief veterinarian for the past 22 years who was fired last week, said it was his candor with federal officials about problems concerning animal care during their inspection that led to his downfall.

A review of the zoo's board minutes from 2004 reveals that William Dennler, the zoo's executive director, planned to contact the supervisor for USDA inspectors "to try to determine why this inspection was conducted at this time and in this manner." Mr. Dennler also took his complaints to the American Zoo and Aquarium Association's deputy director.

"We feel the inspectors overstepped their bounds on a number of issues during this inspection," Patrick Johnson, last year's president of the board of directors of the Toledo Zoological Society, wrote in a letter to fellow board members. "We also suspect that there was at least one disgruntled employee who may have contacted the USDA and instigated this visit."

READ MORE: Crisis at the Zoo

Zoos are issued operating licenses under the federal Animal Welfare Act. As such, they are subject to unannounced inspections by the USDA.

But this particular inspection ruffled zoo feathers far beyond the norm.Randi Meyerson, curator of mammals at the zoo, said yesterday that zoo managers were concerned that a disgruntled employee's call set the stage for a biased review process.

"If you have someone disgruntled with an agenda, it seems [the inspectors] already had their minds made up," said Ms. Meyerson, who also is a veterinarian but is not licensed to practiced in Ohio.

She said USDA inspectors had been given "completely false information."

Ms. Meyerson and others were upset that the preliminary inspection report included errors and inaccurate criticisms. The errors were eliminated from the final report, which found that the zoo failed to provide Dr. Reichard with "appropriate authority to ensure the provision of all aspects of veterinary care."

Mr. Johnson said he did not for a moment think that Dr. Reichard was the "disgruntled employee" zoo administrators were worried about.

"To this day, I am convinced, if someone called the USDA, it was not Dr. Tim [Reichard]. I don't know anybody of any importance who thought it was Dr. Tim," Mr. Johnson said yesterday.

But it was clear that Dr. Reichard did infuriate some top zoo officials during the USDA inspection process.

Ms. Meyerson said it was not that Dr. Reichard talked to the USDA that was the problem, it was that he did not reveal zoo problems to zoo administrators first.

"The institution didn't know what was going on; so the institution couldn't try to defend itself. That was the greatest breach of professionalism and communication," Ms. Meyerson said.

But Dr. Reichard said yesterday he can document his communications with Ms. Meyerson and his supervisors with e-mail messages, memos, and notes he kept on his work.

"I talked to them about what's in the inspection report. There is nothing in that report that I can think of'' that wasn't brought to co-workers and supervisors, often on more than one occasion, he said.

The USDA report stemming from last year's inspection cited six areas the zoo needed to improve. Among those findings were a number having to do with Dr. Reichard.

Some of these concerns revolved around the death of an elderly hippopotamus, Cupid, in July, 2003.

Cupid was found close to death late in the day. He was lying near a door to the hippo exhibit. A necropsy revealed the animal had a broken neck. Damaged neck muscle tissue indicated severe trauma. Although zoo employees initially thought the animal collapsed and somehow injured its neck in the fall, or hurt itself by its own thrashing, Dr. Reichard said he came to believe that the animal's neck broke when its head was forced into a narrow opening by a closing concrete-and-steel hydraulic door.

A keeper closed the door that day so a maintenance team could work near the animal enclosure. Dr. Reichard said the animal may have been caught between two walls of a narrow hall that serves as a keeper escape. Both walls were splashed with blood.

After Cupid's death, Dr. Reichard requested that keepers check on all animals halfway through the day. The USDA report said new procedures reflecting this requirement had not been completed.

In addition, the USDA report noted that modifications to prevent a repeat of the hippo accident were not made until six months after the animal's death.

The report further stated that numerous practices relating to the welfare of giraffes, each requested by Dr. Reichard, had not been carried out.

"From the review of numerous documents and interviews, it is clear that these veterinary recommendations from the attending veterinarian [Dr. Reichard] have not been addressed in a reasonable time. The licensee [the Toledo Zoo] has failed to provide the attending veterinarian with adequate authority to ensure the provision of adequate veterinary care," the 2004 USDA report stated.

Blade staff writer Tad Vezner contributed to this report.

Contact Jenni Laidman at:

jenni@theblade.com

or 419-724-6507.



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