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The Phoenix Zoo is known for preserving wildlife, fostering environmental education and nurturing animal populations.
For nearly 40 years, the privately funded facility has been a mainstay in Maricopa County's tourism market. Its exhibits have garnered international recognition. And its mission has been supported by generous donations and volunteer support.
But in July, the Phoenix Zoo declared open season on small animals it believed to be a health risk. Zoo officials sponsored a contest, called the "Rodent/Rabbit Games," to encourage employees to hunt down and capture the animals that were later killed and tested for disease.
They even offered a reward, or bounty, to those employees who delivered the most animals -- dead or alive.
The contest, according to zoo officials, netted more than 950 rabbits and rodents.
Prior to July, the zoo had been trapping up to 35 animals a month, specifically rabbits, ground squirrels and rats, in conjunction with a mandate from the state Department of Health Services.
The trapping was needed to assess a continued health risk following an outbreak of tularemia, a bacterial infection contagious to both humans and animals, in May 2000.
But the contest -- and the financial rewards -- sparked outrage among certain employees. And the zoo did little to help its case once the story became public.
Officials tried to delay an interview request. Employees received internal warnings about the consequences of discussing zoo business with anyone not affiliated with the zoo. And top administrators, when confronted with questions, offered conflicting information while trying to paint the contest as a necessary, if unpleasant, event.
To some, such a contest might seem unbelievable.
But it's just the latest in what one insider described as a continuing pattern of bad behavior toward nuisance animals that roam the zoo grounds.
The employee, who spoke to New Times on condition of anonymity, says that it has been routine practice for more than a year for a few zoo workers to use rocks to stone rabbits to death. Sometimes they shoot rabbits with an air rifle, and, on at least one occasion, tortured a rabbit by nailing it to a makeshift stick cross, the employee says.
"People think people [at the zoo] care about animals," the employee says. "Some of us do."
The "Rodent/Rabbit Games" contest, which lasted from July 2 to 31, added fuel to a mean streak that had been contained to a few workers.
"It was like an obsession," the employee says. "People only wanted the money. It was a numbers game. The more they caught, the better chance for them to win."
Zoo officials deny that anyone has used any other means besides a trap to capture animals. They say that no animal has been harmed unnecessarily. That the animals are euthanized in the most humane way possible before blood samples are taken and sent to the state for testing. That staff members are given specific instructions on how the animals must be caught.
"We're not ashamed of anything we've done," says Ralph Piland, deputy director, whose duties include overseeing the zoo's living collection of about 1,300 animals. "What we're doing is our obligation to the living collection, to the health and welfare of the living collection."
That obligation began 15 months ago, shortly after the first tamarin monkeys died at the Phoenix Zoo.
Within weeks, the state Department of Health Services was warning the public about an outbreak of tularemia in Phoenix's Papago Park area, whose rugged terrain has been home to the 125-acre zoo since 1962.
It was the first reported case of tularemia in Maricopa County.
In all, 10 endangered tamarins, small primates native to South America, were infected. Eight of them died. No people were infected. And, since May 2000, no other cases of the disease have been identified. Zoo officials say they are still waiting for results to come back from the animals collected during the "Rodent/Rabbit Games" in July.
Tularemia, according to DHS, is prevalent in the U.S., Europe and Asia. Commonly called "rabbit fever," there have been as many as 300 cases of the disease reported annually in this country.
Arizona, however, has not historically been a hotbed for outbreaks. In June 2000, DHS officials announced that only six cases had been reported statewide since 1990, none of those in Maricopa County.
The risk to humans comes through direct contact, such as an animal bite. The disease cannot be spread from person to person.
Zoo officials say they took action as soon as they identified the disease and the species of animals believed infected. Exposed workers were tested. Sanitary measures were enhanced.
"We needed to assess the risk to the public," says Mira Leslie, a state public health veterinarian. "Once we assessed the risk to the public was very, very low, we wanted to monitor the rodent population and see if this organism persisted over time."
The state initially trapped 185 specimens. Phoenix Zoo Chief Veterinarian Dr. Curtis Eng estimates that seven or eight animals tested positive. Some of those tested had been found dead on zoo grounds.
"We're almost convinced that [the disease] is still on grounds," says Eng, who came to the zoo about two years ago from Indiana. "That's why we're still looking at such long-term surveillance."