Recent letter spurs questions about zoo probe
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Recent letter spurs questions about zoo probe


Column: Recent letter spurs questions about zoo probe

By Ric Anderson

November 7, 2009 - 10:39pm

City officials are confident they'll get an objective, independent and thorough report from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums when the AZA comes to town to conduct a review of the Topeka Zoo.

I wish I felt the same way. But based on a recent letter to the editor in The Capital-Journal from the AZA, I can't shake this sense that the review could go something like this:

Lead inspector -- "Well, I think we've seen all we need to see. Terrific operation you've got here, folks. Top-notch!"

Zoo administrator -- "Wait, aren't you guys even going to get out of the car? At least come in and have a doughnut."

OK, that's obviously not the way things will happen, but the letter did strike me as a strong endorsement of the zoo's operations and staff. In light of the recent announcement that the AZA had agreed to review the zoo for the city, it made me wonder about the organization's objectivity.

Kristin L. Vehrs, the AZA's executive director, submitted the letter (http://cjonline.com/opinion/2009-09-10/letter_zoo_deserves_support) in response to a Sept. 2 story raising questions about the quality of care in connection with the deaths of four animals at the zoo.

Vehrs wrote that "the animals at the zoo receive great care from well-trained, dedicated professionals" and that the zoo meets the AZA's "stringent requirements for independent accreditation." She also criticized the Sept. 2 story, saying it presented "a misleading picture" and was a "disservice to readers."

Uh, no

If anything, the story was a tip of the wedge regarding concerns about zoo operations. It came out before the C-J uncovered USDA inspection reports detailing, among other things, how two other animals had died of maggot infestation.

So why did the city request an examination by the AZA?

City performance manager Dennis Taylor, who is overseeing the review, said he believed the AZA would give full autonomy to the team it sends to Topeka. He noted that Vehrs wouldn't be on hand and that he viewed her letter not as a clean bill of health for the zoo but as a "general statement that the staff is well-intentioned."

Taylor said the city partnered with the AZA as opposed to assembling its own group of reviewers to avoid the appearance of hand-picking favorable investigators. He also said the AZA was the only organization the city knew of that independently examines zoos.

All are points well taken, and here's hoping Taylor's right about the AZA conducting an aggressive and exhaustive review.

But Vehrs didn't do the AZA's credibility as an objective, independent investigative body any favors with her September letter.

Ric Anderson, who wonders how many people who read this column had a mental image of Homer Simpson going “Mmm, doughnuts,” can be reached at (785) 295-1282 or ric.anderson@cjonline.com.


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