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Published: Friday, 7/8/2005

Zoo task force knew its critical findings would ruffle feathers

BY TAD VEZNER
BLADE STAFF WRITER

The county task force investigating the Toledo Zoo had reached a consensus -- a strongly worded report had to be issued to save an institution plagued by recent controversies and personnel issues.

"We knew what it was going to do, and we knew it was going to be tough to say some of those things, and have them be made public," said Linnie Willis, who chaired the task force's personnel committee. "On the other hand, it was our responsibility not to go out and say everything's good, [but] to say what was needed."

While running through final changes last week, Dr. Susan Orosz, a veterinarian on the task force's animal-care committee, remembers asking the entire group if it felt the report's findings were too harsh.

"We did have strong statements, and I knew that would be the supercharged discussion with the board members and people in the zoo community," she said. "I wanted to make sure that everyone was on board with the statements that were made."

The members of the task force stated unanimously that they were comfortable with the report, in "100 percent agreement," said Marty Skeldon, co-chair of the task force.

READ MORE: Crisis at the Zoo

The group was set up by Lucas County commissioners after the firing in February of Dr. Tim Reichard, the zoo's chief veterinarian, and the public outcry that ensued. The task force was given 100 days to review zoo operations and issue a report, to be released publicly this morning.

While the circumstances of Dr. Reichard's firing were not addressed in the report -- "that wasn't our charge," Mr. Skeldon said -- the report cites many problems at the zoo, particularly the inability of zoo employees to communicate and work together and let go of grudges.

The report urges changes in the top management structure at the zoo, including several new top managers in animal care, and says new animal-care posts should not be filled internally.

The report also stated the need for open and timely investigations into animal deaths, saying past investigations in many cases had been slow and far after the fact and had resulted in indeterminate conclusions that implied -- even if untrue -- an alteration of the facts.

These recommendations and others were approved unanimously by the entire task force, whose members said there was no disagreement about them.

"There was no rancor. It was a group, unanimous vote. A united front," said Stan McCormick, who chaired the task force's finance subcommittee.

To strike or significantly change a recommendation, the task force would have had to pass a motion with a two-thirds majority. No calls for such votes ever occurred.

"There were some modifications in grammatical changes, but no controversy or disagreement over any of the recommendations," said task force chairman Robert Reinbolt.

Several top zoo officials -- including zoo board President Stephen Staelin and Andy Odum, who is in charge of animal-care issues on the zoo's interim management team -- disagreed with some of the findings Wednesday.

Emma, a hippopotamus at the Toledo Zoo, wears a telemetry device that zoo officials are testing to track the hippos. Emma, a hippopotamus at the Toledo Zoo, wears a telemetry device that zoo officials are testing to track the hippos.
THE BLADE/DAVE ZAPOTOSKY Enlarge | Buy This Photo

Task force members yesterday said they were disappointed with the reaction of top zoo officials.

"It's time to take off the boxing gloves and everybody work together to make the zoo a better place. It's important they understand we heard a very different story than they heard, and that our perspective is valuable to them," Dr. Orosz said. "This whole report should be embraced as something exciting, in a positive way."

Mr. Odum was complimentary yesterday.

"It has some very good points. I think the task force has done an excellent job, very perceptive, very thorough and insightful. They talked to a lot of people here, got a lot of information, and came up with some very good suggestions I like very much," he said. He declined to go into specifics.

Fred Bollin, who is heading the zoo's interim management team, said, "I scanned it, and it looked pretty good. I think they put in a tremendous amount of work, and some of the recommendations have a lot of merit. Some of them need to get clarified, but that's normal."

Marna Ramnath, who is also on the interim management team and is also vice president of the zoo's board of directors, declined to make a "snap judgement" on the report, saying she has yet to review it thoroughly.

"Out of respect to the task force, which has spent thousands of hours putting this together, I think it would be a disservice to make any kind of judgment on their recommendations," Ms. Ramnath said.

Mr. Staelin could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Dr. Pete Wilson, who chairs the zoo board's animal-care committee, said many of the points he has heard regarding his panel were good ones. While defending the existing quality of animal care at the zoo, Dr. Wilson said he hopes to bring in outside veterinary experts to serve on his committee, put a zoo keeper on the panel, and strengthen its oversight of animal deaths.

"I think many of those things [in the report] may very well be implemented," he said. "I think the board needs to be more integrally involved in what's going on with animal care. I think the board was largely excluded with a lot of the day-to-day operational issues, particularly the negative things. The board's really willing to help."

Contact Tad Vezner at:

tvezner@theblade.com

or 419-724-6050.



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