Creature Discomfort

A rising body count sends the Phoenix Zoo scrambling to protect its reputation

An iguana living on the Phoenix Zoo's Arizona Trail recently was maimed after animal handlers inadvertently left a heating pad in the reptile's cage, causing second- and third-degree burns over most of its lower body.

The iguana, nicknamed Stumpy, was so badly burned that its tail had to be amputated and the majority of skin on one of its hind legs was removed, according to zoo employees.

Stumpy is just the latest casualty in a series of incidents that have left zoo animals dead or severely injured. The iguana's injury comes two months after Tinkerbell, an 8-year-old female porcupine, died of starvation after caretakers took away her food as punishment for not performing well in public shows ("Quilled," John W. Allman, March 14).

Rand Carlson

Now, concerned former and current zoo employees are beginning to speak out about a growing number of animal injuries. Those who have called New Times have requested anonymity for fear of losing their jobs; they say zoo officials are angry that information about the poor care is leaking out.

Phoenix Zoo officials declined to comment for this story. Members of the zoo's board also declined comment. Elaine Morrison, president of the Arizona Zoological Society, hung up when contacted by New Times.

Besides the iguana, the workers say that in early February, a pregnant anaconda died following a dispute over medical care. The large snake was captured in South America and received by the zoo to be put on exhibit. Zoo officials allegedly did not know the snake was pregnant. The anaconda fell ill shortly after arriving and died before giving birth.

The death of Tinkerbell, the porcupine, was summarized in internal zoo documents received by the newspaper in late February. Feeding schedules for the porcupine detailed specific dates when Tinkerbell's food was removed because of poor performance. The porcupine died January 11.

The Maricopa County Sheriff's Office investigated the incident in February after receiving an anonymous tip. Dr. Curtis Eng, the zoo's chief veterinarian, told an investigator that Tinkerbell starved herself to death after becoming "despondent" about being put on a diet. The sheriff's office closed its investigation, based on the zoo's explanation.

News of Tinkerbell's death has sparked outrage, however. Both the zoo and the newspaper have been flooded with letters and phone calls protesting the animal's treatment.

A group of concerned Valley citizens and animal activists plans to protest on Saturday, March 30, outside the zoo. A candlelight vigil will be held at 5 p.m. on public property near the zoo, which is in Phoenix's Papago Park.

"We just want to honor Tinkerbell, her life and her untimely death," says Darcee Espelien of Phoenix, one of the vigil organizers.

To date, the zoo has offered little comment outside of internal e-mails to staff which show zoo officials are more concerned about blocking leaks to the media or law enforcement agencies. Administrators have gone so far as to make employees sign documents agreeing not to reveal zoo business, employees say.

The internal memos to staff have also offered differing accounts of what happened to Tinkerbell.

On March 13, a day before New Times wrote about Tinkerbell, zoo director Jeff Williamson sent an e-mail alerting employees to the story. The message chastised employees for leaking internal zoo documents to the paper, and suggested that the zoo was not to blame for Tinkerbell's death.

"In presenting animals in a city to urban audiences we manage their behaviors using positive reinforcement. Food is one way of rewarding an animal for positive behaviors," Williamson wrote. "Recently a porcupine used in demonstrations for children developed an eating disorder, it became malnourished and died."

But a second e-mail, sent out by Williamson last week after the story appeared, offered a different explanation. He acknowledged an internal review had found Tinkerbell's handlers, as well as other zoo staff, to be negligent. Williamson's e-mail, however, also criticized the fact that the internal review had been released anonymously to the newspaper.

"It is unfortunate that certain individuals use the news media to air our grievances. Nevertheless, we made some mistakes and it is legitimate to call us to question," Williamson wrote.

"In time, each creature in our care inevitably will die. We hope that means after a long life under appropriate conditions. Most of our animals experience such lives. Some do not, in spite of our best efforts. Particularly painful are those rare instances, such as Tinkerbell's, when we do not perform our best."

Williamson assured staff and volunteers that the zoo has changed its animal-handling and care protocols to prevent another such incident. However, he did not cite specific changes that are being made.

No disciplinary action has been taken to date in any of the incidents.

 
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