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Published: Sunday, 3/27/2005

Inquiry in 2004 disclosed problems at Toledo Zoo

Summary to board told different story

BY TAD VEZNER
BLADE STAFF WRITER

An investigation by the Toledo Zoo early last year revealed that problems among zoo employees were jeopardizing animal care - with one animal dying - but by the time the investigators' findings were presented to the zoo's full board of directors, the story had changed.

The investigative team - made up of two curators, a zookeeper, and an administrator - found that communication problems in the mammal department contributed to the death of George the giraffe in 2001.

But the message the board received at its March, 22, 2004, meeting: "Care and treatment of the animals was appropriate and there was nothing to indicate that the zoo was culpable to any adverse impact on the animals."

Lead investigator R. Andrew Odum, curator of reptiles, last week told The Blade that what the board was told contradicted the findings of his team.

At issue are only a few lines in the team's nine-page report that were altered or completely removed, but they are central to the investigation.

READ MORE: Crisis at the Zoo

Mr. Odum's team found specifically that the failure of the mammal keepers and curators to communicate with each other and the zoo's veterinary staff "have negatively affected animal welfare."

In addition, the investigation found that those same problems had "compromised the welfare of the giraffe."

But a summary of the investigation, quoted in zoo executive board minutes, changed the first finding to state that communication problems "may affect animal welfare" and dropped any mention that the giraffe had been in danger.

Zoo Board President Stephen Staelin said last week that his understanding of the investigative team's findings was that communication problems existed, but had not harmed animals in the past. They were of concern only because they might harm animals in the future.

And as far as the overall message he received from top zoo officials after the probe?

"Sometimes animals die, and much as you try to provide all the protection you can, you don't have all the control," Mr. Staelin said.

Federal inspection

When inspectors from the U. S. Department of Agriculture arrived Feb. 4, 2004, they made a lot of people nervous.

They were secretive about why they'd come; they had inspected the zoo just four months before. They were asking questions about specific animals, including the giraffe and Cupid the hippopotamus, both of whom had died.

When the federal inspectors left, many employees were shaken and suspicious. Zoo officials would later call the surprise inspection "unusual," "unprecedented," and "aggressive."

"As you can imagine, it was a very upsetting and confusing time. We've never had this kind of inspection, and the frustrating thing was they would not tell us what they were inspecting for," said William Dennler, the zoo's executive director.

Internal review

Zoo officials thought someone at the zoo had called the USDA and provided inaccurate information about zoo operations.

In response, Mr. Dennler ordered an internal investigation into the deaths of George the giraffe in 2001 and Cupid the hippopotamus in 2003.

Mr. Odum said the point of the investigation was not a "witch hunt" to ferret out whistleblowers but rather an effort to understand what the USDA was worried about.

Top zoo officials had another concern: how the investigation would be viewed or received.

"Andy - In all future correspondence, let's refer to the investigation as an 'internal review.' We think that sounds better," Zoo Chief Operating Officer Robert Harden wrote in an e-mail to Mr. Odum on Feb. 25, 2004, two weeks before the zoo investigation was to begin.

The investigative team conducted interviews with 14 mammal department keepers, the veterinarian staff, curators, maintenance staff, and several others involved in animal care. Over a month, they compiled their findings into a nine-page, confidential document, which was distributed to a few top zoo officials and some members of the zoo board's executive committee.

In that document, Mr. Odum made sure one thing was clear: The death of George the giraffe could have been prevented.

In July, 2001, George and a gazelle-like animal called a kudu were placed in the same exhibit. Two days later the kudu gored George. Several weeks after that, the giraffe died of tetanus.

During the zoo's investigation - even when immunity from any disciplinary action was offered - nobody took responsibility for putting the animals together.

"Nobody fessed up to it," Mr. Odum said in an interview last week.

The veterinarian staff - including former senior veterinarian Tim Reichard - said they were not informed of the introduction.

In the end, the report concluded, "The apparent failure of the keeper staff to inform, discuss, and plan this introduction with the veterinary staff prior to any action was unacceptable and did compromise the welfare of the giraffe."

Mr. Odum went so far as to add a sentence to the report's recommendations - a sentence that he added to the report's original draft - stating: "There are significant communication problems in the mammal department that need attention. These communications problems have negatively affected animal welfare."

Shorter report

But once the first report was completed and distributed, a second, shorter draft was created and handed out to zoo staff.

"The second draft was a communications tool," Mr. Odum said. "The real, actual report was the long version. That was the report that was discussed with all the managers involved."

Mr. Odum's investigative team had help drafting the final "communication tool." Andi Norman, zoo public relations director, and Mr. Dennler, lent a hand in the editing.

Mr. Dennler said last week he was certain any changes he made were purely cosmetic. "Strictly grammar, misspellings, and to make sure the statements were clear."

Somehow, during the final edits of the summary report, Mr. Odum's conclusions about problems at the zoo affecting animal welfare were altered.

"Have affected" became "may affect," and any talk of "compromising the welfare of the giraffe" was removed completely.

As far as who made those changes, neither Ms. Norman, Mr. Dennler, nor Mr. Odum say they can remember.

"I really do not know why that was changed, but I know I didn't change it. All I did was look at the grammar of the thing," Mr. Dennler said. "Why would I commission a report and then try to influence it? That's not me. I would never do something like that."

Dr. Reichard, fired by Mr. Dennler last month, said last week that another change in the "communication tool" made it clear to him he was being targeted.

Not only were things dropped from the final report, but something was added - this time concerning Dr. Reichard. Added to the short version was that Dr. Reichard had been told by a keeper that the giraffe and the kudu were to be put together - a fact not included in the investigative team's full report.

Dr. Reichard vehemently denies he knew about introduction of the animals before it happened, saying he was on vacation for the two weeks prior to the pairing.

Mr. Odum also passionately denies that the changes in the report in any way targeted Dr. Reichard.

"The concept that this was a witch hunt, that wasn't the case at all," Mr. Odum said. "I would have walked out of the place. I have more integrity than that. I couldn't live with myself."

Mr. Odum added that any changes during any of the drafts of the report would have had to have been reviewed and approved by the full team.

But when asked to compare the wording of the "communication tool" to the "real report" produced by his investigative team, he said: "I think it does contradict the findings [about] the giraffe."

But the essence of the report is the same, Mr. Odum maintained. "If you go back through it, it becomes obvious that there were problems in communications, that's the important thing. It might be a little less potent, but the report still stands.

"And in the [full] report itself, it clearly establishes that [staff problems] did affect animal welfare. ... People reading it will see that."

A different message?

That message didn't get through to members of the board of directors of the Toledo Zoological Society - a group of mostly Toledo and Lucas County businessmen.

"The pathology report and the report from the fact-finding team seems to vindicate the zoo from any culpability in the deaths of these two animals. We have found nothing substantive in the investigation," stated minutes of the board's March 22, 2004, executive committee meeting.

Discussion during the full zoo board meeting, which took place one hour later, was more definitive: "From all 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."

Then-board President Patrick Johnson, who read the full report "from stem to stern" and summarized it to the full board, said he still stands by his summary.

"Did putting the two animals together lead to the giraffe's death? No, I don't think so. To me, the issue there was whether the wound had been cleaned, or the animal properly medicated, not whether they were put together," he said last week.

In his opinion, the report was designed to identify future problems rather than "cast blame" for past mistakes.

"If there was a problem, I could care less who created it, as long as it didn't happen again," he said. "Did the lack of communication negatively effect the animal in that it was injured, the answer is yes - but I don't believe the lack of communication contributed to its death."

Contact Tad Vezner at:

tvezner@theblade.com

or 419-724-6050.



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