The Austin Zoo provides a home and cares for animals that others won’t or can’t. We house animals who were retired from display at other facilities because of their age, health or other issues. We take in animals that were seized in animal cruelty cases. We welcome former exotic pets whose owners could no longer take care of them.
In July 2018, the Austin Zoo was accused of mistreating some of our animals in the past by some of our former animal care staff. We took their accusations seriously and thoroughly investigated each claim. We took actions where needed, but many of their claims reflected disagreements with the veterinary team’s decisions or the zoo management, and others resulted from the failures of some zookeepers to maintain professional standards of cleanliness and conduct.
You may have read or seen some upsetting things about the Zoo in the media lately. Only one side of the story is presented in those articles. Our longtime veterinarian, Dr. Jakubowsky, has disputed the way the media misrepresented her experience with the Zoo. In addition, a surprise, thorough February 2019 inspection of our facilities and animal care records by a three-person U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) team found no non-compliant issues regarding our care and end-of-life decisions for every animal mentioned in the news or the July 2018 letter. That team included a supervisory animal care specialist and a non-human primate specialist.
The Austin Zoo team cares not only about our animals but also about how the Zoo has been mischaracterized by the media and some former employees. Here are the facts about our animal care program.
OUR DEPUTY DIRECTOR OF ANIMAL CARE
Jesse Pottebaum, the Deputy Director of Animal Care, leads the Zoo’s animal care program. Jesse brings the Austin Zoo more than 21 years of professional zoological experience, 16 years of which has spent in curatorial leadership positions, including roles at several zoos and aquariums. He has extensive experience in exhibit design, safety, animal behavior and nutrition, and staff leadership.
From his first day on the job in September 2018, Jesse has “leveled up” the Zoo staff’s professionalism. He believes that every day is a chance to be better than the day before. He has increased the standards of care and raised the expectations of habitat cleanliness. He has increased training for zookeepers, streamlined their daily schedules and updated the standard operating procedures of the Zoo.
Our animal care policies and procedures always follow appropriate, nationally recognized standards. We are proud to be accredited by the Zoological Association of America. Our facilities and animal care records are regularly inspected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and other regulatory agencies as required by federal and state law. Our goal is not just to meet these standards but to exceed them.
The Austin Zoo’s animal care team is composed of zookeepers, who are the primary day-to-day caregivers and habitat cleaners, and our team of veterinarians and vet techs. Each has very specific and important roles to play in ensuring our animals’ health and happiness.
THE ZOOKEEPERS’ ROLES
Many people associate zookeepers most strongly with animal care, because it’s usually a zookeeper that visitors will see alongside the animals while visiting the zoo. Since zookeepers spend most of their time near the animals and their habitats, they are usually the ones who first alert the veterinary team and other zoo staff of any issues that might need attention.
Zookeepers are expected to perform several tasks every day for each animal in their assigned area. The first is to make sure all the animals are accounted for and there are no conditions, either of the animals or their habitats, that need immediate attention. Zookeepers ensure that the habitat is safe and secure by thoroughly inspecting it. They check all locks, make sure the animal is contained and nothing in, adjacent to or above a habitat can provide an escape route. They look for anything inside the habitat that could harm an animal.
They observe each animal and go through its unique behavioral checklist to make sure it is acting normally. For example, they’ll check to see if the animal ate or left food. They’ll look at the way the animal is walking or interacting with others. They’ll look for anything unusual in the animal’s excrement or note that it did not defecate. Anything out of the ordinary or anything requiring follow-up must be included in written notes for each animal. These notes help the next day’s keeper to know what his or her colleague saw the day before, and they help the veterinary team to track, diagnose and treat any illness.
The biggest part of a zookeepers’ job is to clean the habitats. It’s important for the animals’ welfare that their habitats and enclosures are cleaned daily and thoroughly. This almost always includes scooping up excrement and removing any uneaten or spoiled food. It can also involve replacing the hay or other natural bedding, cleaning and sanitizing indoor living spaces, hosing and power-washing surfaces and cleaning pools and drains.
They’ll feed the animal its prescribed diet. Feeding times vary with different species, and it’s up to the keeper to present an animal its food at the right time and place for optimal consumption. Sometimes the zookeeper has to prepare an animal’s food. All animals’ diets are approved by our veterinary team and adjusted seasonally. For example, our bears eat much more food in the fall than during the winter, which is typical for bears in the wild. No change can be made to an animal’s diet without veterinary approval.
Zookeepers provide “enrichment,” which is meant to keep each animal stimulated and curious in its environment. This can include providing the animals with approved toys, special treats (always approved by the vets), placing food in various places in the habitat so the animal has to forage for it or putting food into puzzle feeders, which challenge the animals to use their problem-solving skills to get their food out of the puzzle. Zookeepers might utilize different scents to give the animals something new to experience. At times, the animals might be moved temporarily into another part of their enclosure where they explore new territory.
Keepers may give animals their prescribed medications according to the dosage and schedule provided by our veterinary team. This may be once or multiple times a day depending on the veterinarians’ instructions. However, zookeepers are not trained to diagnose an animal’s condition or determine a course of medical treatment. Zookeepers are expected to alert one of our on-site veterinary technicians or the Deputy Director immediately if they think an animal might need medical attention, but all medical care decisions are made by the veterinary team.
THE VETERINARY TEAM’S ROLES
The Austin Zoo has licensed veterinarians available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, every day of the year. We have a local veterinarian whose practice is near the Zoo’s location. We have a consulting veterinarian who specializes in exotic mammals. We have two veterinary technicians, at least one of whom is on the Zoo’s grounds almost every day, and the Deputy Director is trained to be a vet tech. We also have a relationship with two veterinarians at Texas A&M University, which provide specialty care and some diagnostic services for our largest animals.
Our veterinary technicians, or vet techs, serve as the veterinarians’ right hands. Each of them has at least nine years of experience working under veterinarians and at other zoological and animal care settings. They are trained to administer medicine, give fluids, draw blood, monitor anesthesia, take radiographs and ultrasounds, clean wounds and dressings and address concerns raised by our zookeepers. They keep track of all our animals’ medicines and medical charts.
Our local veterinarian is our USDA veterinarian of record. He maintains our official Program of Veterinary Care, which is regulated by USDA and contains highly detailed treatment protocols and standards. This program is inspected by USDA at least once a year. Our local vet regularly visits the Zoo once a week, usually the day after the animal care team’s (zookeepers, vet techs and the Deputy Director) weekly meeting. He goes through the notes for each animal flagged by the animal care team, and he walks the grounds to look at all our animals.
Our consulting veterinarian is a nationally recognized expert on exotic mammals. She consults via conference call once a week, usually the day after our local veterinarian’s visit, with our vet techs and the Deputy Director. Every four to six weeks, she comes to the Austin Zoo, usually for four full days, to see the animals, inspect their charts, recommend changes to medicines or diet and perform necessary procedures on the animals.
Many of the recommended procedures can be done in our clinic, which we are in the process of upgrading and expanding. Sometimes we’ll take the animals to our local veterinarian’s clinic. Occasionally we need larger facilities, which are available locally. Every once in a while, we’ll need to take an animal to Texas A&M’s veterinary campus.
Only a veterinarian can prescribe or change an animals’ medicines or dosage. Our vet techs and zookeepers administer the prescribed medications, but a veterinarian’s approval is required for any changes in a treatment program. The veterinarians’ medical care decisions cannot be overridden by the Zoo’s staff or management, and they must be carefully and accurately followed to help our animals recover and return to full health.
HOW CARE DECISIONS ARE MADE
Once one of our vet techs determines that an animal care decision is needed, they immediately send a group message to the veterinary team: their fellow vet tech, the local and consulting veterinarians, and the Deputy Director. The tech may send photos, copies of the animal’s charts or zookeepers’ notes, and other information that helps inform a group discussion of the animal’s health.
After Jesse’s arrival last fall, the Zoo implemented a new Quality of Life protocol. It is a checklist of specific, medically based factors that make potentially emotional decisions as objective as possible. Broadly, the protocol assesses the extent to which the animals is “Bright, Alert and Responsive.” Some of the factors include whether the animal can stand normally, how does it walk and what percentage of its food was eaten? This protocol helps guide the veterinary team’s discussions about treatment options.
Ultimately, the veterinarians prescribe treatment for the animal, which may include medications, dietary changes, procedures, quarantine and other appropriate responses. The length of time for treatment varies with the animal but is usually revisited each week. If the animal’s recovery is not progressing as expected, the veterinary team will discuss whether to give the treatment more time, change medications or dosages, or try a different approach. The cost of treatment is never a consideration.
End-of-life decisions are the most difficult. Sometimes, a decision to euthanize an animal will be supported by all staff involved with the animal’s care, which is ideal, but sometimes there’s no perfect decision. Sometimes there is disagreement about whether the animal should be treated or euthanized. At these times, all animal care staff, including zookeepers, must keep a professional distance from the animal and not let their emotional attachments to it compromise a determination of what is best for the animal.
The Austin Zoo follows the American Veterinary Medical Association and American Association of Zoo Veterinarians guidelines for euthanasia. It also follows an elective euthanasia criteria policy the Deputy Director put in place his first week on the job. These 10 criteria are used to guide the animal and veterinary teams’ discussion, facilitate consensus and make the decision as objective as possible. The criteria include whether the animal shows signs of significant pain, grooms itself, uses all parts of its habitat and exhibits normal behavior. The veterinarians assess how treatable the animal’s condition is, what are the anticipated results of that treatment, how stressful will treatment be for the animal and does treatment impose safety risks on the Zoo staff. The animal’s age in also considered relative to the typical life span for the species.
Ultimately, the Deputy Director and the veterinarian have the final decision in cases where consensus cannot be achieved. The attending veterinarian must be supportive of the decision before performing euthanasia. The Zoo’s Executive Director is kept informed but does not participate in this decision-making process. Decisions to treat or euthanize are never based on monetary considerations.
It is never easy to say goodbye to an animal. Our goal is to do everything we can to make sure we don’t say goodbye too soon, or too late. Not everyone will agree with every decision to euthanize or to treat, and disagreement can happen when everyone cares about each of our animals and only wants the best for them. The Austin Zoo will not substitute emotional judgment for professional medical advice.
Necropsies are performed by a board-certified veterinary pathologist in all cases where an animal has died or was euthanized. This is not required by law or ZAA, but it’s something we do to inform our veterinary team on disease management and prevention as well as enhance our animal care decisions going forward. We can’t advance if we don’t keep learning.
Every day is a chance to be better than the day before. We are working every day to give our animals the best care, best home and best experience possible. The results are on public display to our guests and visitors every day. We care, and we look forward to showing the Austin community and animal lovers everywhere how much we care.