Austin Zoo Faces Scrutiny After 'Statesman' Report Of Animal Mistreatment

Jan 31, 2019

Monkeys losing parts of their tails to frostbite. Alligators living for months with no sunlight. Lions and tigers lying in their own waste for weeks.

These are just a few of the allegations of animal mistreatment Austin American-Statesman reporter Elizabeth Findell detailed in a piece last week about the Austin Zoo.

A group of zookeepers says management decisions led to the unnecessary suffering of many animals.

Morning Edition Host Jennifer Stayton talked with Findell about what she learned through her reporting and what these zookeepers had to say.

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This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Elizabeth Findell: Whenever I asked them what their most serious concerns were, almost all of them said it was how the zoo handled "end-of-life" cases. They were concerned that there had always been this persistent reluctance to euthanize animals who were suffering. Almost all of them had stories of animals that they felt their deaths had been dragged out and that they had suffered unnecessarily. In particular, with the animals that were dangerous animals, like a lion or a tiger, where you can't go in and pet them and help them be more comfortable.

Jennifer Stayton: There was an incident that seemed to have sort of been a breaking point for the staffers and the zookeepers. It has to do with a black bear named Babs. Tell us about what happened with Babs.

Findell: There was a black bear out there who was quite old, about 33. That's very old for a bear, and Babs was nearing the end of her life. She had gotten to the point where she was in a lot of pain and she had, I believe, an infection. Babs couldn't stand up or really even move at all anymore. She was taken inside to a kennel and laid there. The zookeepers were shoving doughnuts in her mouth trying to get her to eat. There were facilities guys using 2-by-4s to flip her over a couple of times a day. She's a bear, so they couldn't do much as far as physical stuff around her. She was lying in her own waste and food. Her fur got really matted.

Stayton: As you reported, a group of six staffers got together they wrote a very lengthy 54-page letter to the board, and it was filled with descriptions and allegations of what they say was mistreatment of the animals. The zookeepers also asked for some changes. What were the main things that they were asking for?

Findell: The main thing they're asking for is to not have the director of the zoo also be the president of the board. They've made it very clear they don't like the director of the zoo. The zookeepers would like to see her go, but they're not demanding that she be fired. They're demanding that she hold one of the two positions. The second thing the zookeepers want is a written euthanasia policy. They've made other demands at various points. They would like to see other people added to the board because the board is very small. While I was reporting the story, it was only four members; one of whom was the director herself. The board may have added a fifth since then.

Stayton: There is also an allegation that Patti Clark retaliated after this letter was written. Zookeepers say that she refused to promote any of them into a senior role and instead gave a particular job to someone with no animal experience. Tell us more about that segment of the story.

Findell: The chronology of it was that the board received this letter and it wasn't initially signed. The six zookeepers who wrote it were communicating back and forth with the board via shared e-mail address and they essentially said they would identify themselves when the board would sit down with them in person, but not until then.

However, in the meantime, they didn't know who had written this letter. Patti Clark, the director, started doing some things that the zookeepers thought were retaliatory. One of which was that she didn't promote any of the zookeepers who were next in line to take care of the most dangerous predators and instead, Clark had her administrative assistant do it, someone that didn't have animal experience. That's all undisputed essentially.

The zoo representatives who I spoke with, the board member and PR professional, said that Clark's actions were not retaliation, that she had picked her administrative assistant because she thought the administrative assistant had better judgment than some of the zookeepers.

Stayton: It looks like the board did ultimately agree to an investigation. What is the status of that?

Findell: Three of the five board members at the time were designated as an investigative committee to look into the allegations that were in the letter. They began looking into them and one of the things that was a bit of concern that we addressed in the story was that Rick King, a board member who spoke with me and who was on that committee, was forwarding a lot of their communications back to Patti Clark, who was supposed to be recused from the investigation because it was examining things that were under her purview. Essentially, they did their investigation and they said it was wrapped up.

I received an updated statement from them that makes reference to an ongoing outside investigation, but that is the first I've heard of that. They absolutely did not tell me that there was any sort of outside investigation when I spoke with them before, so it's unclear what that means or if that's something that has happened only since the story.

Stayton: Your reporting about the Austin Zoo came out of the Austin American Statesman last week. What kind of response have you gotten to this story?

Findell: There's been a large response online of animal lovers and people very concerned about how animals are being treated. A lot of people are saying that they'll be reluctant to go to the zoo in the future or give money to the zoo unless something changes. A lot of the zookeepers themselves have responded on social media saying to not give up on the zoo, but help the zookeepers make changes there.

In a statement provided to KUT, the Austin Zoo said it stands by the internal investigation done by the board and argues much of the zookeeper’s letter was inaccurate. The statement also says the zoo will continue to examine governance processes in all areas of operation. Board members say they are still waiting on the results of an ongoing outside investigation.