Animals keep dying at the Phoenix Zoo, but not from natural causes

Tinkerbell would have been 9 years old next month.

The female porcupine, born in 1993 and received by the Phoenix Zoo in 1998, had a pretty easy life. All she had to do was perform for people as part of a zoo educational program.

But when her weight became an issue, and her willingness to act accordingly for crowds diminished, the porcupine's handlers systematically reduced her diet to the point that the creature wasted away, according to internal zoo records obtained by New Times.

Phoenix Zoo feeding chart
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Phoenix Zoo feeding chart
Enlarge image

Terry Rishel; ©2000 Dale Chihuly

By early January, when Tinkerbell finally received medical attention for lethargy and weakness, it was too late. Her tiny body, frail beyond belief, was emaciated to the point that the formerly healthy porcupine, which should have weighed 12 pounds, had been starved down to 8 pounds.

She died two days later, on January 11.

It's the latest troubling sign from a facility that is developing a frightening reputation for its treatment of wildlife.

Last July, the zoo sponsored a contest, the "Rodent/Rabbit Games," offering cash prizes to employees who captured the most rodents, squirrels and rabbits roaming zoo grounds. The contest, according to zoo officials at the time, was necessary because of an outbreak of tularemia, a bacterial infection contagious to both animals and humans. More than 950 small animals were captured and killed, without a single one testing positive ("Hare Today, Gone Tomorrow," John W. Allman, October 4, 2001).

A whistle-blower disclosed that some of the rodents and rabbits were being brutalized by zoo employees who used rocks to stone them to death. Zoo administrators denied any animals had been killed in such a way by employees.

This latest incident, however, might prove more troublesome, given an internal case study dated February 2 that places blame specifically on the trainers assigned to care for the porcupine.

"The animal in question was not maintained to the health and husbandry standards of this institution," the internal review concluded, "resulting in its premature death."

"Many opportunities to note this medical condition were missed by various parties," it goes on to say. "The weights were ignored by numerous persons, with no interpretation of the data."

The zoo crafted 16 recommendations, based on the case study, to make immediate improvements in its training/presentation protocol. No disciplinary action, however, was recommended.

Zoo officials refused a New Times request to interview chief veterinarian Dr. Curtis Eng and others who had direct contact with Tinkerbell. A faxed statement, received March 4, says the zoo will not respond to "unsubstantiated or anonymous source information."

However, the zoo did cooperate with the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office, which received an anonymous complaint about Tinkerbell's death, and other health and safety issues at the zoo, on February 18.

The complainant, according to a sheriff's report, said that Tinkerbell's handler "was angry when the porcupine did not perform for the audience and ended up starving the animal to death."

An investigator from the sheriff's Animal Cruelties Investigation Unit went to the zoo in late February and interviewed staff members, including Eng.

Eng told investigators that Tinkerbell had a history of weight problems and was placed on a restrictive diet. He said a necropsy performed on Tinkerbell after her death showed the cause of death to be consistent with severe undernourishment.

"Dr. Eng said when the reduction occurred, the porcupine apparently became despondent and stopped eating, basically starving itself to death," the sheriff's report says. "Although poor judgment may have been used to determine the weight and food reduction of the porcupine, there was no intent to harm or injure the animal."

No action was taken by the sheriff's investigator. His report concludes that, based on the zoo's description of events, the incident did not violate animal cruelty statutes.

On March 8, after denying a New Times interview request and being questioned by the sheriff's office about Tinkerbell, the zoo instituted a new policy regarding the leaking of private zoo information.

To prevent future leaks about zoo business, employees who had worked with the person responsible for caring for Tinkerbell were made to sign an agreement stating that they would never contact any outside agency, including law enforcement or the media.

Ralph Piland, deputy director, whose duties include overseeing the zoo's living collection, allegedly told the employees that the zoo hoped that Tinkerbell's story would not be published since the zoo had declined comment to New Times.

Animal rights activists have long held that zoos and other institutions that confine animals must pay close attention to how those animals are maintained.

D.J. Schubert, a wildlife biologist and board member of the Animal Defense League of Arizona, had not heard about the porcupine's death. However, he says that zoos have a responsibility to monitor levels of diet, environment and veterinary care for exhibit animals.

"If this animal was overweight and required a special restrictive diet, extra effort should have been made to monitor the animal's health as its treatment continued," Schubert says. "They need to take steps to ensure these types of instances don't occur in the future. Under no circumstance should this type of incident be brushed under the rug."

Tinkerbell's ordeal began in December 2000, after nearly two years spent on the zoo's Arizona Trail, where she lived with another porcupine. She was moved to an educational offshoot that the zoo uses to teach people about wildlife. Animals used in this capacity often are accustomed to people, and are expected to perform in front of large groups.

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