AZA to Topeka: See you in a year
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AZA to Topeka: See you in a year


AZA will hold off on Topeka accreditation decision to monitor progress

By James Carlson

Created March 3, 2010 at 11:21am

Updated March 4, 2010 at 1:15am

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — The dreary skies in this oceanside town hung heavy like a furrowed brow Wednesday morning, setting an ominous tone for the deliberations within a nearby hotel conference room.

At stake within was the Topeka Zoo's accreditation — and along with that its ability to receive loaned animals and its credibility within the zoo community.

The zoo Wednesday fended off a crushing blow by essentially being put on probation for a year. Once that time is up, it will learn if it won a full reprieve.

A panel of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums voted to table the zoo's accreditation for the second time in nine years. The zoo will deliver a progress report in six months, after which the AZA will conduct a follow-up inspection and decide in March 2011 whether to continue Topeka's accreditation. The zoo isn't scheduled to be reaccredited until 2012, but because of recent problems there it was called before the AZA to justify why it should retain its current status.

City manager Norton Bonaparte hailed the decision as a positive step.

"I think the outcome speaks for itself in that they have shown that they think we're on the right track and that we're making progress," he said minutes after receiving the news. "That's why they allowed us to retain accreditation."

During Wednesday's hearing at the AZA's midyear conference, a four-member Topeka contingent consisting of Bonaparte, interim zoo director Dennis Taylor and two longtime zoo employees argued recent personnel changes and extensive plans for redirecting the zoo's path warranted maintaining accreditation.

The AZA agreed but wants to monitor the zoo's progress.

Bruce Bohmke, chairman of the AZA's accreditation commission, said he was happy with the steps the zoo has taken but recognized further changes are needed.

"A lot of those things aren't going to be fixed in one day," he said.

A new vision

After six months of battering criticism about inadequate veterinary care and lackluster record-keeping related to animal deaths and scathing reports about a work environment filled with intimidation, the Topeka Zoo's fate came down to a 30-minute hearing.

The city officials were called in to the hearing room just past 9:30 a.m. local time, exited just past 10 a.m. and received their verdict minutes later.

Back in Topeka, Jesse Borjon said it was "good day for the Topeka Zoo."

"They have made significant progress in a short period of time in addressing concerns, and the AZA recognized that progress today with their findings," said Borjon, chairman of the board of the Friends of the Topeka Zoo.

Bohmke, who is deputy director of the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, characterized the 12-member commission's action as good news for Topeka. He said the panel could have stripped the accreditation outright but had seen positive steps by the city in recent months.

"Tabling infers that there are things still to be done, but we believe they're fully capable of doing that in the one-year period," he said.

Priority one for Topeka? Hire a new veterinarian and a new zoo director. Rather than being a detriment to recruiting a top-notch director, Bonaparte said the tabling would allow someone to stamp their mark on Topeka.

"The new director will be charged with defining the vision and the focus of the zoo," he said.

The city has said it hopes to fill the director's and veterinarian's position by May 3. Whoever gets the job would enter with a full load of responsibilities.

One is crafting an action plan that will get the zoo back into the AZA's good graces.

Another could be a tough decision on the facility's elephants. A national animal advocacy group has pushed the city to retire Tembo and Sunda to a sanctuary in Tennessee. They claim the zoo doesn't have the financial or structural resources to properly care for the large mammals.

The Topeka City Council recently rejected a resolution supporting the elephants' movement, largely due to the vacant spot at the top. On Wednesday, Bonaparte said the AZA panel was pleased by that decision.

Checkered path

A new director also will have to nurse a bruised image.

In August and September reports, the U.S. Department of Agriculture cited the facility for lax veterinary care and record-keeping surrounding animal deaths. Among those findings were that a hippo died after being found in 108-degree water, a leopard died after being administered a medication later found to be fatal, and a Pallas cat and rabbit died after being infested with maggots.

On Oct. 22, the day The Topeka Capital-Journal reported on the second report, Bonaparte called for an outside review of the zoo. That inspection, conducted by a three-member team from the AZA, found "a feeling of fear, intimidation, and lack of trust in management" existed at the zoo. It also said zoo director Mike Coker had made misleading statements to the public about the deaths in question.

Zoo veterinarian Shirley Llizo's employment ended in October. Coker retired in December.

Those departures preceded last month's sweep of the zoo's upper management. On Feb. 11, the city laid off four zoo staff members, including three of the four remaining top managers in a move Bonaparte said would help the zoo's chances of retaining accreditation.

Four days after that announcement, the zoo also outlined an extensive plan of action, including the creation of a new position aimed at reducing staff intimidation.

On Wednesday, the AZA said it was pleased with the steps already taken and wanted to see continued progress.

Same song, new year

The zoo has been here before.

In September 2000, the AZA tabled the zoo's accreditation over concerns about the facility's elephants. It retabled the status in March 2001, and when the group wasn't happy with continued staff vacancies, including the director's chair, it pulled accreditation completely in September 2001.

It was during that controversy that Coker was promoted to the zoo's top spot.

With Wednesday's action, the Topeka Zoo became one of the few to have its accreditation tabled two times in less than 10 years. Bohmke said in his five years on the commission, he couldn't remember any others. AZA spokesman Steve Feldman said he could remember one other in his time.

But Bohmke said the zoo would prosper again. There are no specific prescriptions, he said, but rather many roads to healing.

AZA spokesman Steve Feldman noted it was Bonaparte who initiated the special inspection process that led to Wednesday's hearing.

"The city really values and understands the importance of maintaining high standards," he said. "Clearly there's a path to continued improvement."

James Carlson can be reached at (785) 295-1186 or james.carlson@cjonline.com and tweets at twitter.com/carlson_james.


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