Internal battles plunge zoo into a caldron of discontent

Controversial consultant took aim at veterinarian

  • Char-Petiniot-zoo

    Char Petiniot, a Toledo Zoo employee for 24 years, says she knew a management consultant was going to be diffi cult to deal with based on her understanding of gorilla body language.

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  • A review of George the giraffe’s death in 2001 cited communication problems in the mammal department. After consultant Scott Warrick, foreground, came on board, some employees complained that he was infl aming tensions within that department. The mammal department was the topic of this entry in one of Mr. Warrick’s reports.
    A review of George the giraffe’s death in 2001 cited communication problems in the mammal department. After consultant Scott Warrick, foreground, came on board, some employees complained that he was infl aming tensions within that department. The mammal department was the topic of this entry in one of Mr. Warrick’s reports.

    The primate keepers looked twice when they saw Scott Warrick pacing the front of the conference room.

    Mr. Warrick, a consultant for the Toledo Zoo, walked with his torso thrust forward, his lips pursed, keepers said. He was meeting with more than a dozen keepers in the mammal department.

    Although he said the August meeting was to inform a group of disgruntled employees facts they didn't want to hear, Char Petiniot, a gorilla keeper, saw his posture as a warning, a signal of aggressive intent.

    "Having worked with gorillas, where a lot of communication is done with body language, you get used to reading body language really easily,'' said Ms. Petiniot, a zoo employee for 24 years. One glance at Mr. Warrick told her: "We're in for it."

    Mammal keepers weren't the only ones "in for it" when Mr. Warrick pitched in last year to help zoo officials improve employee relations.


    The Reynoldsburg, Ohio, lawyer and human relations consultant was involved in the Feb. 28 firing of Tim Reichard, the zoo's chief veterinarian for the last 22 years. Mr. Warrick issued memos to the vet and other employees in language almost guaranteed to provoke an angry response.

    Zoo officials terminated Mr. Warrick's contract Friday after Blade reporters began asking questions about his tactics.

    Brought in to improve communications, Mr. Warrick proved a divisive figure at the zoo, where breakdowns in communications between keepers, the mammal curator, and the veterinary department led to problems for animals.

    Poor communications

    In early July, 2001, someone decided to put George the giraffe and an antelope-like animal called a kudu into the same enclosure. There was a standing order to keep these animals apart, drafted more than a year earlier. Shaggy, the kudu, was known to behave aggressively toward the giraffe. On the second day the two animals were exhibited together, the kudu gored the giraffe. Twenty days later, George died of tetanus.

    Even after an extensive investigation, zoo officials were never able to find out who put the two animals together.

    What they did find was that the introduction was done without the supervision of the veterinary staff - normal procedure before new animals are put together. In fact, no veterinarian was at the zoo the day of the goring.

    "There are significant communication problems in the mammal department that need attention. These communications problems have affected animal welfare," stated a report issued by zoo staff.

    "Each keeper or Sr. Keeper was asked if he or she had been the victim of any past retribution from their supervisor when they brought up an animal issue. Four out of 14 animal care people interviewed stated that they had. We recommend that [the human resources department] look more closely into these matters."

    But minutes of a March, 2004, zoo board of directors meeting put the matter in a different light: "From all of the facts obtained, it has been determined that the care and treatment of the animals was appropriate and that there was nothing to indicate that the zoo was culpable to any adverse impact on the animals."

    Communication problems were a major feature in Dr. Reichard's firing. The veterinarian's close relationship with animal keepers led to repeated charges that the veterinarian was "undermining" the animal curators, to whom keepers answer.

    But the keepers suggest there's another reason they went to Dr. Reichard: He listened.

    "There are communication problems with mammal keepers and [mammal curator Randi Meyerson]," one keeper said.

    "Some people can talk, other people, if they open their mouth, she jumps on them. That's the underlying thing why people talk to Dr. Tim."

    Ms. Meyerson declined to be interviewed. She was not the mammal curator when the giraffe was gored.

    Zoo Executive Director William Dennler also declined to comment for this story. He agreed to talk with reporters on Friday and yesterday, but cancelled minutes before the Friday meeting and did not call yesterday, although a zoo board member agreed to an interview instead.

    Mr. Dennler also did not reply to a request for an interview yesterday when a reporter went to his home.

    Zoo board president Stephen Staelin said yesterday that communication problems at the zoo are limited to the mammal department.

    "That is a relatively small group in relation to the entire zoo. I don't think you should lead people to believe this is a widespread issue," he said.

    Even so, zoo keepers say problems in the mammal department contributed to Dr. Reichard's downfall.

    Gorilla keeper Char Petiniot said she is able to discuss problems with Ms. Meyerson, but said the trouble comes when there's a need for a neutral third party.

    That led many keepers to Dr. Reichard.

    "It's not always that we're justified, but sometimes you need to talk about things, and you don't have a next step, other than the vet," Ms. Petiniot said. "I feel really bad because some of us may have put Tim [Reichard] in jeopardy, because he's always been there for us."

    Char Petiniot, a Toledo Zoo employee for 24 years, says she knew a management consultant was going to be diffi cult to deal with based on her understanding of gorilla body language.
    Char Petiniot, a Toledo Zoo employee for 24 years, says she knew a management consultant was going to be diffi cult to deal with based on her understanding of gorilla body language.

    Chaotic meeting

    It was a Friday afternoon when about a dozen mammal keepers were summoned to the aquarium conference room for a meeting with Mr. Warrick. Keepers knew him from earlier presentations. They expected more of the same general instructions. In fact, up until that meeting, many people found Mr. Warrick's advice helpful, including Dr. Reichard.

    Ms. Petiniot confesses her real concern on that Aug. 27 afternoon was the weather. Storm clouds were rolling in. Should she move the gorillas indoors before the meeting, or leave them outside in hopes that the storm would miss Toledo? She decided to risk the weather, asking a volunteer who worked with her to call her if the weather got bad.

    When she arrived at the meeting, she was handed a nine-page report on the mammal department. No one could leave the room, she was told. But Ms. Petiniot, whose eyesight is so poor she cannot drive, hadn't expected to read. Her glasses were back at the ape house. She got permission to return for them.

    Outside, it was pouring. Why hadn't the volunteer called her? But the volunteer had tried. "They refused to let any calls through." The gorillas got out of the rain only because Ms. Petiniot forgot her glasses.

    When she returned, the meeting had already turned into chaos. Keepers said one employee was yelled at for taking notes, another for asking questions before questions were being entertained.

    Keepers found the report inflammatory. In it, Mr. Warrick wrote: "I do not believe I have ever seen a department as dysfunctional as the mammal department at the Toledo Zoo." The report stated mammal keepers were so out of control that "many told me that their role is to 'run the zoo.' " The employees, he wrote, were "very quick to rebel, and they tend to be very vindictive in doing so.''

    The employees were dismayed by the tenor of the report, and by Mr. Warrick's demeanor. They knew the department had problems to solve, but keepers who had been interviewed by Mr. Warrick prior to the meeting felt he had set them up.

    "I really still love the zoo,'' said a keeper who asked to remain anonymous out of fear she would be fired for talking to The Blade. She said the consultant had asked employees in interviews over the weeks before the meeting about "what we wanted to change, what wasn't working,'' then, at the meeting, he criticized the keepers as complainers.

    He "didn't ask me what was right!" the keeper said. "Our department is not that bad. We actually get along very well."

    While the shouting match was going on, keepers kept looking to zoo managers who were also in the meeting, including Ms. Meyerson, and Human Resources Director Sheri Caldwell.

    "All the managers involved were sitting right there, and not a single one spoke up and said, 'Stop,' '' said another keeper who asked not to be named. "We were just looking at them like, 'Are you going to help us? Are you going to say something?' " the keeper said.

    When the managers failed to intervene, the keeper said, it looked like "They were behind this process."

    Fiery report

    In fact, the keeper might not have been too far from the truth, e-mail correspondence suggests.

    When zoo management first saw the report on the mammal department, some considered it too inflammatory to show to mammal keepers.

    Zoo Chief Operating Officer Robert Harden wrote in an Aug. 25 e-mail: "I still have serious concerns about using this for anything other than an internal mgt document. I think sending this out is only going to stir up folks Some of the comments that Scott [Warrick] makes about that dept. could almost be used as a rallying cry that [keeper] tactics have worked (i.e. most dysfunctional department, anarchy has spread)."

    Ms. Meyerson, the mammal curator, expressed similar reservations.

    But those concerns were pushed aside. Ms. Caldwell, the zoo's human resources manager, forwarded Mr. Harden's memo to the consultant. Mr. Warrick responded that Mr. Harden's e-mail "is the problem...not the employees. They have become what we have allowed them to become because of lack of management."

    In fact, Mr. Warrick wrote, he hoped the report would stir up employees.

    "I guarantee you some of the employees will do exactly what Bob [Harden] says they will do (actually, I am counting on it!)...Rabid employees will try and use this against us. Let them. I hope they do," Mr. Warrick wrote.

    He concludes: "You are at a serious cross roads where you will take up the sword and fight or lay down and take it. You cannot win without the buy-in of good employees. I care what they think. Screw the others. They have it coming to them. PRAY they do what Bob says."

    Mr. Warrick denies that he behaved at all aggressively during the meeting with keepers to induce the results his e-mail prayed for.

    "I had this same meeting six or seven different times. One of them was an absolute disaster. The others were absolutely wonderful,'' he said in an interview yesterday. The meeting with mammal keepers went bad because "that one group, that's where all the problem people are.

    "I didn't want them to get mad, but I knew that they would,'' Mr. Warrick said. "I don't want to intentionally antagonize them,'' he said, but "the facts are the facts. Why would we not want to put that out there? Why would we not want to talk about it?"

    But keepers say the facts presented in the report were not accurate, and indicated that the consultant wasn't familiar with the zoo and its operations.

    One point in Mr. Warrick's report said that some mammal department employees "use their animals as weapons against others. For instance, certain employees from other departments have been severely chastised for looking at the mammals." He said that an ape keeper had launched a verbal attack on a security guard for looking at the animals.

    Suzanne Husband, a keeper for the orangutans and chimpanzees, said she told Mr. Warrick that the keeper was only enforcing the zoo policy that prohibits employees from coming into the ape house lobby before 10 a.m., when keepers are moving animals in and out of exhibits, getting ready for visitors.

    When someone comes through the lobby - particularly anyone in uniform - the apes pay attention to the visitor and ignore keeper commands.

    Rather than listen to the explanation, Ms. Husband said, "[Mr. Warrick] just started yelling at me."

    The consultant declined to discuss the issue of keepers using animals as weapons during yesterday's interview.

    After the tumultuous meeting, keepers composed a letter to zoo officials, outlining what happened in the meeting, and asking that they not have to meet with the consultant again. They also filed a union grievance claiming the creation of a hostile work environment. Mr. Warrick responded to the keeper's three-page letter with a 20-page rebuttal, in which he said he acted aggressively only to "mirror" the employees' behavior. "After about 15 minutes of this, I gave up. The mammal department employees in this meeting simply disintegrated into a mob," he stated.

    He suggested that his lengthy letter go into the employees' personnel files. His response is full of the same strongly worded statements that inflamed keepers in the first place: "Again, these employees fail to take any responsibility for their actions and have created an intolerable environment in the mammal department,'' it states. "They continue to play 'games' with management ... attempting to rationalize away their own contributions to this deteriorating employment relationship."

    In fact, zoo employees are not the only ones at the other end of Mr. Warrick's rhetoric. The consultant was recently hired by the mayor of Reynoldsburg, a suburb of Columbus, to conduct a human relations audi.

    When Mr. Warrick met with Reynoldsburg City Council in executive session, council members said they weren't happy with the results of his work. Mr. Warrick responded with a lengthy e-mail calling for council to be voted out. He distributed the e-mail broadly.

    Council, he said, "instantly disintegrated into a mob" - the same wording he used to describe the zoo's mammal department.

    The often sarcastic e-mail refers to the council as children, suggests they are stupid, and calls them bullies. He also called mammal department members bullies.

    He said in his e-mail: "I have used this approach several times in several organizations ... and it has never failed to work. I am batting 1000%. Council is batting .000%."

    Apparently, his batting statistics don't include the Toledo Zoo mammal department.

    Warning letter

    Mr. Warrick also turned his gift for prose on Dr. Reichard after the veterinarian received a second warning from zoo administrators in 2004, including communication issues between himself and the curator of mammals. The veterinarian had asked for clarification about some of the issues in the reprimand.

    Mr. Warrick wrote a seven-page response, accusing the veterinarian of playing games and behaving like a bully.

    He also told Dr. Reichard a story about a firefighter who was good at his job, but argued with his bosses. He was fired, and "no other fire department in the state will touch him. He is now a salesman in Delaware, Ohio, and financially destroyed."

    Three months later Dr. Reichard was fired. Zoo executives said it had nothing to do with his abilities as a veterinarian, which they praised, but they blamed management and administrative failings.

    Contact Jenni Laidman at: or 419-724-6507.