January 30, 2019-
For decades, the Austin Zoo has been committed to animal welfare and rehabilitation, and to serving as a haven for many animals that have been rescued from adverse environments. We are also committed to public outreach and education, and we would again like to express to our community our commitment to transparency and accountability, high standards of conduct with respect to our animals and their care, as well as with respect to the governance of Austin Zoo.
As a board of directors, we appreciate the focus of attention that the letter provided and respect the subsequent Austin American-Statesman article. While we do not think that the article is fully balanced with respect to the issues it purports to address, we want to assure the community of our attention to the issues raised and to present a well-informed response.
We stand by the internal investigation conducted by the board of directors, our Zoo’s mission and the continued progress that is being made at the Zoo. Where we faltered and let down our community and the Zoo is in our lack of communication with the community and education of certain zookeeping staff. Much of the letter was based on medically inaccurate information, incomplete information, and a misunderstanding of how Zoos operate. In addition, we were hesitant to bring our findings to the Statesman because of internal personnel issues and most importantly, we do not have the results of an ongoing outside investigation. As a pledge to our supporters, the board of directors will continue to examine governance and processes in all areas of the Zoo even after the outside investigation is completed. Again, we apologize for our previous silence and failing to share some of these important facts.
The Letter and Response
Once the board of directors received the anonymous letter, the board designated three board members to lead the investigation into the letter’s claims. Of course, the first step was an immediate check and multiple follow-up tours of all the animals at the Zoo to make sure there were no current conditions that needed instant corrective action. The investigation that followed included interviews of veterinary team members, facilities personnel, and animal care staff. It also involved the review of animal care files, veterinarian medical notes, and inspections of all Zoo facilities.
As a result of the investigation, we found the claims made fell into five categories:
1. Issues that Needed to Be Fixed and Were Addressed Immediately
- Proper disposal of used medical instruments
- Chemotherapy drug disposal
- Staff exposure to newly acquired but potentially dangerous small animals
2. Issues that Were Found to Be False and Required No Action
- A false claim of toxoplasmosis contamination threatening the public
- A false claim of a dangerous cougar habitat threatening zookeepers
- A false claim that the Zoo Director was overriding the euthanasia decisions made by veterinarians
3. Issues Arising from the Failure of Certain Zookeepers to Follow Well-Established Communication, Cleaning, and Safety Protocols and Procedures Necessitating Additional Zookeeper Training
- Failure to follow proper protocol for cleaning capybara pool
- Failure to follow proper protocol for cleaning and spraying enclosures to avoid runoff
- Failure to follow proper protocol for storing hay to prevent bacterial contamination of enclosures
4. Issues that Had Already Been Identified and Were in the Process of Being Addressed
- Hiring of a new Deputy Director of Animal Care
- Expansion of the veterinary team
- Improved and expanded animal enclosures
- Hiring of more zookeeping staff with greater experience and knowledge base
5. Issues that Had Already Been Identified and Corrected
- Rust in dens
- Improved winterization of animal enclosures
Many other issues remain under deeper review as part of an ongoing outside investigation.
Started consultation with a new zoo veterinarian working in collaboration with existing long-time veterinarian and other local veterinary specialists who provide services to the Austin Zoo to improve and expand regular animal welfare assessments and a compassionate end-of-life care policy consistent with USDA Program of Veterinary Care.
February 14, 2018 – Retained new local veterinarian able to commit a greater level of time to work in collaboration with other local consultants. The new veterinarian began a minimum of once weekly onsite veterinary rounds as well as 24/7 emergency access via phone/text.
February – Hired new Education Programs Manager to develop new education programs, specifically summer and winter.
May 3 – Zoo granted Zoological Association of America (ZAA) accreditation after lengthy evaluation and inspection process. Note on Zoo accreditations: ZAA accreditation is as stringent as Associations of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) accreditation when it comes to health care and welfare of animals. As a non-breeding rescue zoo, the Austin Zoo does not qualify for AZA accreditation because the AZA requires accredited facilities to participate in a Species Survival Plan to help ensure the survival of various species through captive breeding.
July – Built out two walk-in snake rooms for our larger snakes, with more room to climb and explore.
July 2 – Annual unannounced USDA inspection – no deficiencies reported.
July – Began process of hiring additional animal care staff with higher levels of experience from other facilities. Increased veterinarian team staffing to have full-time veterinarian technician staffing.
July 18-Sept. 26 – Patti Clark, the Volunteer Zoo Director, briefly acted as the interim supervisor of the animal care team until a new Deputy Director of Animal Care was hired. Her involvement in animal care during this time was focused primarily on the scheduling of keepers, responding to keeper questions, and approving facilities and animal-care expenditures. Throughout this period, animal-care decisions continued to be made by the veterinary team. During this time, three elderly animals had to be euthanized at the direction of the veterinarians and consistent with the Zoo’s euthanasia policies.
July 31 – Board of Directors receive anonymous letter from animal care staff.
August – Board acknowledges anonymous letter. An Immediate inspection of the Zoo was conducted to confirm that there were no ongoing animal health or safety issues, as well as an immediate inspection and inquiry into alleged public health and safety conditions at the Zoo. The issues in the letter were found to be medically false or otherwise incorrect.
Board designates three Board members to lead the investigation of the letter’s claims, by conducting interviews, reviewing files, and inspecting Zoo facilities. Two board members with conflicts of interest were not part of the investigation process.
August – Broke ground on the new Prairie Dog habitat
August 6 – Legal counsel engaged as part of outside investigation.
August – September – Board interviews were conducted with staff members and veterinary team.
Board reviewed and evaluated alleged conflicts-of-interest and financial mismanagement issues and found these accusations to be legally and factually untrue.
September 26 – Hired new Deputy Director of Animal Care/Veterinary Care with extensive zoological experience including exhibit design and safety, animal behavior and nutrition as well as veterinary technician skills.
September – Construction began on new Ostrich habitat, moved into new habitat in January of 2019
October – Zoo veterinarian and new Deputy Director of Animal Care/Veterinary Care developed an animal quality-of-life check list that they review verbally to access the condition of all zoo animals.
October – New Deputy Director of Animal Care/Veterinary Care implemented zookeeper management meetings, occurring 1-2 times per week. Discussions include animal husbandry care improvements and expectations, exhibit updates and repairs and communication topics for veterinary care.
October 5th – Received an OSHA inquiry containing five complaints. As of January 25, 2019, all have been resolved.
October 8th – Hired a new animal care/veterinary technician to ensure expert coverage on grounds seven days a week.
October – Renovated the Patas Monkey habitat to move from an off-display area.
October – Renovated a habitat for two Ring-tailed Lemurs to move from an off-display area.
October – Began construction of safeties for all aviaries in the Zoo, completed in January of 2019.
October – Expanded frequency of Zoo Veterinarian’s consultations with the Deputy Director and veterinary technicians and onsite visits. from quarterly to monthly. On call access 24/7.
October & November – New Deputy Director expanded training for entry-level keepers and streamlined labor models.
November – Metal beams and caging were replaced in the bear den due to oxidization/rust.
November – Green-winged macaw and feral hog were transitioned from off-display interim holding areas into permanent enclosures.
November – present – Numerous exhibit bedrooms were constructed or repaired to prepare for winterization including Patas monkeys and Ring-tailed lemurs.
December – Purchased a portable anesthesia machine.
January – Ostrich barn is complete with electric for heat or cooling fans and water, allowing for complete separation and keeper care without direct animal contact to ensure animal and keeper safety.