Calgary Zoo Director Cites 'Challenging' Few Months in Her Resignation

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Calgary Zoo Director Cites 'Challenging' Few Months in Her Resignation

[Ed. Note: What was "challenging" for the zoo director was the deaths of many animals.]

By Bill Graveland, The Canadian Press

"It went from being one of the best zoos in Canada, two directors ago, and right now it has a worse reputation than probably most of the roadside zoos," she said.

The director of conservation at the Calgary Zoo has called it quits as the facility is reviewed over several animal deaths and high-profile accidents.

Cathy Gaviller says she has stepped down to pursue other opportunities.

"The past few months have been very challenging for the organization and for me personally," she said in a news release Thursday.

"I care deeply for the Calgary Zoo and hope my decision can help the zoo move forward confidently and begin a new chapter in animal stewardship."

The Calgary Zoo requested an audit of its internal operations in December after a capybara died as the result of human error. The giant Central American rodent was crushed to death when a worker closed a hydraulic door.

In May 2008, 41 stingrays died after the opening of an interactive exhibit which allowed visitors to pet them in the water. Their deaths also were the result of a mistake. The zoo found there was a lack of dissolved oxygen in the tank.

An attempt to import a six-year-old hippo from the Denver Zoo in October 2007 went bad when the animal died less than a day after its 28-hour transfer.

There have also been several high-profile accidents in recent years. A Turkmenian markhor got caught in a rope and strangled to death. A mule deer broke its neck after it ran into a fence.

Last year, a zoo patron snapped a photograph of a gorilla holding a knife that had been accidentally left behind by a keeper. Zoo officials were quick to explain that primates don't understand the idea of using weapons and no one was ever in danger.

Last month, two Malagasy giant hognose snakes escaped from their enclosure by slithering into an opening left uncovered by a keeper who was draining a pool. They were eventually found a short distance from the drain.

Last fall, two men breached security when they climbed over two fences in the middle of the night and tried to get into the tiger cage at the zoo. One man was seriously hurt.

Just this week, a staff member was suspended when a gorilla used a pile of snow to almost escape its enclosure. The animal jumped to the top of the glass surrounding its area, but was scared back inside by a worker.

The results of the audit are expected soon. It's being led by the Washington-D.C.-based Association of Zoos and Aquariums, and the Canadian Association of Zoos and Aquariums based in Ottawa. They are the accrediting bodies that set standards for zoos.

"I'm optimistic this is the start of something. I think there could be other problems in the senior management levels," said Julie Woodyer of Zoocheck Canada, a national animal protection group.

Gaviller could not be reached for further comment.

A zoo spokesman said Gaviller handed in her resignation Wednesday and was not fired.

Simon Scott also said the zoo has a problem with someone on the inside anonymously choosing to publicly air the zoo's internal issues.

"I think we've got a poisonous component in our own organization that, for whatever reason, seems intent on taking a really personal, sensitive issue and quite happily trotting it out in the media for their own gain," said Scott, who is director of communications and marketing for the zoo. "That worries me."

Scott said the zoo has invited the tipster or tipsters to help make the facility a safer place for animals, but they haven't done so.

He hadn't spoken to Gaviller about her departure but agreed the situation at the zoo has been difficult.

"There's no question that the zoo has been under a fair degree of scrutiny over the last few months. It's also been under a great deal of strain. Everyone has felt that in the organization.

"Cathy has felt some of that pressure undoubtedly and - I'm surmising here - but I don't think anyone could blame someone for choosing to avoid that - to take themselves out of that."

Woodyer said the Calgary Zoo had a sterling reputation at one point.

"It went from being one of the best zoos in Canada, two directors ago, and right now it has a worse reputation than probably most of the roadside zoos," she said.