Matthew Wilbur arrived at the Adobe Mountain Wildlife Center to an eerie scene.
At the time, Wilbur was working with raptors as a paid college intern for the Arizona Game and Fish Department, which maintained the wildlife rehabilitation center. The recently shuttered center, surrounded by a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire, is next door to a juvenile prison near Interstate 17 and Pinnacle Peak Road.
As Wilbur recalls, when he walked into the center’s animal hospital on the morning of June 20, 2016, reptiles were scattered around the room — rattlesnakes, Gila monsters, toads, and boas. Some were in their cages. Others were in trash bags. Most were lifeless.
Another employee, Tegan Wolf, had arrived before Wilbur.
“‘What the hell happened?’” Wilbur remembers asking her. “She said, ‘I don’t know, it was really hot in the reptile hut.’”
Around a dozen of the center’s reptiles had overheated, according to Wilbur. Peering into the trash bags, he saw limp, dead rattlesnakes. Other animals appeared to be clinging to life, clearly in distress due to heat exposure, he recalled. A Gila monster was hyperventilating in its Plexiglass container, lethargic and unresponsive, Wilbur said.
The power to the reptile hut’s air-conditioning unit had failed sometime before staff arrived at the rehabilitation center that morning. Unlike mammals, reptiles are cold-blooded and cannot regulate their internal body temperature, so when the shed’s temperature climbed in the June heat, they baked to death. The freestanding reptile shed had become an oven by the time Wolf arrived, so she carried the reptiles from their hut into the nearby animal hospital.
Wolf and Wilbur had been assigned to take some of these reptiles — part of a collection that the state used for education and outreach — to the Game and Fish Department’s headquarters. That Monday, they were supposed to assist in a scheduled live animal presentation for a group of kids.
Wilbur and several other former volunteers at Adobe Mountain say that the reptile deaths fit a pattern of mistakes and bad practices during the center's final years before it closed in May 2018. They complained, sometimes in writing, to their superiors about the center's management and need to improve its animal rehabilitation procedures.
The Game and Fish Department employee who supervised the center, Mike Demlong, resigned effective May 18 after Phoenix New Times made a series of inquiries probing the animal deaths.
The department strongly disputed the allegations with testimonials from experts and countervailing explanations of events at the wildlife center. In the agency's view, the volunteers' recollections are inaccurate.
Demlong declined to be interviewed for this article. But in a lengthy statement provided to New Times, Tony Guiles, assistant director for the Game and Fish Department's Information, Education and Recreation Division, cited consulting veterinarians who vouched for the center’s animal practices.
"Oversight of the care and husbandry of the wildlife at the Center is provided by experienced and passionate animal caregivers, consultants, and multiple cooperating veterinarians," the department said in a statement. "In addition, unannounced inspections of the Center by [federally certified] veterinarians occur annually."
The number of reptiles that died is a matter of debate between the state wildlife agency and former Adobe Mountain workers.
Department officials argue that there were only seven animals in the reptile building. Of those, only a rosy boa, two diamondback rattlesnakes, and a Gila monster died, the department said in a statement.
An electrical surge during a summer storm on the night of June 19 disrupted power to the entire Adobe Mountain Wildlife Center, Guiles said. When power was restored after the storm, he said, an electrical surge caused the circuit breaker in the reptile shed to switch off the power.
Because of the incident, what was left of the reptile collection was moved into the main animal hospital building. Staff also installed an alarm that alerts them if the building temperature becomes too warm or cold, Guiles said.
“No employee negligence was involved and no one was disciplined as a result of this incident,” Guiles wrote in an email to New Times.
The department also called into question Wilbur’s eyewitness knowledge of the incident. Leaning on Wolf's recollections, the agency argued that Wilbur did not arrive that morning until after Wolf had cleaned up the scene and placed the dead reptiles in a specimen freezer.
Wilbur acknowledges that Wolf arrived before him, but said that he saw the animal deaths take place. "When I walked in, she was in the process of bagging the reptiles, and some of them were in bags already. I definitely witnessed what was going on in the hospital," he said.
Wolf, who remains a department employee and works with desert tortoises, did not respond to a request for comment.
What makes the department's response especially distressing to Wilbur is that the air-conditioner and the circuit breaker to the reptile house had malfunctioned previously, he said.
The reptile shed lost power two weeks prior to the incident when the reptiles died — except in the earlier outage, volunteers were around to restore the power before it was too late. (The department maintains that no such electrical failure occurred.)
And Wilbur remains adamant that more than four reptiles lost their lives. When he arrived at the center that morning, he insists, approximately a dozen reptiles were dead and others were suffering from heat exposure.
Wilbur, 30, volunteered at Adobe Mountain through a biology bachelor’s pathway program from January 2015 to August 2016. He now works as an emergency medical technician.
Shortly after the reptiles died, Wilbur filed a complaint to the human resources department. In his June 24 letter, Wilbur criticized Demlong — the supervisor of Adobe Mountain and the Game and Fish Department's wildlife program education manager.
Wilbur raised a variety of concerns about animal care and mentioned the handling of the reptile deaths, calling the incident “certainly avoidable.”
“I have seen a degradation in animal care, been put in unethical situations regarding wildlife and have been subject to an increasingly uncomfortable work environment, coercion and slander against my person,” Wilbur wrote.
The department investigated Wilbur's complaint but took no action. "The investigation found that the acts alleged were unfounded and that the employee conduct did not violate Department policy, procedure, rule or statute," Guiles wrote in an email.
Then, five days after he filed the complaint, Wilbur was reassigned from his position at Adobe Mountain. He was told to work at the Game and Fish headquarters for the remainder of the internship.
“I was basically doing office work, biding my time,” Wilbur said. It felt like retribution. After all, Wilbur merely wanted to raise concerns about the treatment of sick and injured animals at Adobe Mountain, he explained.
"Nobody ever said anything about it, and as soon as I said something about it, I get reassigned," Wilbur said.
The department provided records purporting to show Wilbur's poor performance as an intern. Shortly after Wilbur submitted the complaint letter, Demlong dressed him down in an email.
Demlong wrote, "[O]ver the past approximately two months, you have either intentionally or unintentionally become slow to respond to my requests…follow specific and clear direction…and notify me (your supervisor) when you were unable to work an assigned task or come to work.”
The department terminated Wilbur on July 28, 2016, after he failed to report to work for two weeks.
Wilbur explaining that his work environment at the headquarters became unbearable after he filed the complaint. His internship was scheduled to end in August, so after he was blackballed from working at Adobe Mountain, Wilbur stopped reporting to work following one last attempt to repair the damage with his superiors.
"It was unfortunate," he said of his firing. "But I didn’t want to be in an uncomfortable work environment, because you don’t want to hate your life for eight hours a day."
Wilbur's formal complaint wasn't the only one Adobe Mountain received around that time.
Another volunteer, Stacy Westerholm, volunteered at Adobe Mountain on Sundays for around 20 years. But she quit volunteering last October, upset at the management of the wildlife center and the 2016 animal deaths.
She wasn’t at the center on the morning that the reptiles died. But 54-year-old Westerholm, who works for a different state agency, said that Wilbur’s account of the incident is accurate. “We lost almost the entire collection,” she said.
In December 2016, Westerholm, along with around four other current and former volunteers, sent an unsigned letter to then-Game and Fish Director Larry Voyles. (Wilbur was not involved with writing the letter, according to him and Westerholm.)
Failing to have a backup air conditioner in place, especially when someone had offered to donate the unit, amounted to “intentional neglect,” the volunteers wrote. The letter compared the incident to the deaths of over 20 dogs at a Gilbert kennel in 2014 due to heat exhaustion.
In the complaint, the volunteers outlined several other instances of alleged animal mistreatment that took place between 2014 and 2016. They described desert tortoises trapped in the heat due to the construction and layout of their pens; a goshawk that had been at Adobe Mountain for months but had not received medical attention for a wing problem; and the confinement of a bald eagle to a small enclosure.
The volunteers requested a meeting with the Game and Fish Department’s leadership. The letter explained that they wanted to remain anonymous because of fears of retribution — the authors claimed that Demlong would often retaliate against volunteers who questioned practices at Adobe Mountain, leading to the departure of many volunteers.
"We want to know we are part of a system that helps and does not intentionally hurt," the letter concludes. "We all volunteer because we love animals, we also love Adobe and want it to be the premier rehabilitation and education facility in the state. Is this a goal of Adobe? Can we set the standards for rehabilitation and education?"
The reptile deaths amounted to the last straw for many volunteers, according to Westerholm.
“More and more things were going downhill at Adobe, and I think the reptile thing really bothered a lot of people,” Westerholm said. “And so we kind of got together and said, you know, what can we do about this?"
"I don't know that anybody believed that this would help, but people kind of felt like, at least we did something," she added.
The volunteers never heard back from Voyles or other top Game and Fish officials. But in a January 2017 internal memo, obtained through a records request, the department's education branch chief Kellie Tharp responded point-by-point to the volunteers’ allegations.
The tortoise pens had adequate shade and were constructed in consultation with herpetologists, department staff wrote; the goshawk’s health status was actively monitored; the bald eagle’s move to a smaller enclosure was recommended by the department’s contracted animal trainer “to improve training results, reduce stress on the bird, and ensure staff safety.”
One bird expert and longtime Adobe Mountain volunteer disagrees: Jerry Ostwinkle, a 59-year-old falconer in Glendale. He argues that inexperience and carelessness was widespread among the Adobe Mountain staff and volunteers who managed animal rehabilitation.
Ostwinkle quit as an Adobe Mountain raptor rehabilitator in March 2016. He says that the department declined to punish a volunteer who manhandled and taunted the birds, an issue which prompted a clash with Demlong and led to Ostwinkle’s resignation.
He was disgusted with the treatment of the birds in the department’s care. Ostwinkle would watch staff release birds into the wild, even though he was sure that the animal would not survive in the wild based on its rehabilitation.
“These mistakes at Adobe were costing animals their lives because [of] the inexperience and the incompetence of the people in charge,” Ostwinkle says. "It was ridiculous.”
It was a nasty falling-out between Ostwinkle and a rehabilitation center where he had volunteered for three decades. As recently as 2014, Demlong praised Ostwinkle when the falconer received an inaugural award named in his honor from the Sonoran Antelope and Golden Eagle Society.
“The Adobe Mountain Wildlife Center is incredibly fortunate to have Jerry’s expertise at hand and his willingness to volunteer so many hours towards helping rehabilitate and conserve Arizona’s eagles,” Demlong said at the time.
Westerholm and Wilbur vouched for Ostwinkle’s raptor expertise, and Wilbur described him as a "mentor."
A woodworker by trade, Ostwinkle has a history of tangling with state and federal wildlife authorities. In the late 1990s, he battled the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in court to keep his golden eagle named Rex — Ostwinkle rehabilitated the bird after it fell from the nest as a chick.
He was also one of two falconers sued by the Arizona Game and Fish Department for the use of Rex in a credit card commercial. The state said Ostwinkle’s permit did not allow the commercial use of the raptor and that he failed to register another one of his birds.
However, the guilty verdict against Ostwinkle and the other falconer, Gary Lollman, was dismissed when an appeals court learned that state officials had altered dates on investigative reports in order to circumvent the one-year statute of limitations to prosecute the falconers, New Times reported at the time.
The department said that Ostwinkle's claims are unsubstantiated.
“Mr. Ostwinkle’s allegation of animal mistreatment is baseless," the agency's statement says. "His claims (and those of Mr. Wilbur and Ms. Westerholm) are not supportable and contrary to the recollections of Department personnel of any incidents that could even be construed of mistreatment.”
If Ostwinkle was worried about animal mistreatment, the department argues, he should have reported his concerns when he was a volunteer instead of talking to the media after resigning.
When Adobe Mountain was built in 1983, it was the first rehabilitation facility run by a state wildlife agency, according to the Game and Fish Department. But in recent years, the facility was showing its age with trip hazards and septic problems; in 2014, the department began to outsource common wildlife needing rehabilitation to local qualified rehabilitators.
In 2011, the agency approved the construction of a new wildlife veterinary center to be built at Game and Fish headquarters. Department engineers estimate that the 2,400-square-foot center will cost $1.65 million, a figure that includes federal grant funds.
A temporary facility on the grounds of the department's headquarters currently houses wildlife that was moved there after Adobe Mountain closed.
In spite of its age, the department argues that Adobe Mountain always met or exceeded state and federal wildlife captivity standards.
As a matter of fact, on the same day that the reptiles were found dead in 2016, a U.S. Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service veterinarian conducted a routine inspection of the center and found no infractions, the Game and Fish Department said in a statement.
New Times began inquiring about the volunteers' complaints in February. The Game and Fish Department released its 10-page response in early June rebutting the accusations of the former volunteers.
To bolster its case against the former volunteers, Game and Fish referred to the expertise of a trio of consulting wildlife veterinarians who praised Demlong and the animal-care procedures at Adobe Mountain.
Dr. Jay Johnson, an outside consulting veterinarian for the center and the founder of the Arizona Exotic Animal Hospital, was quoted as saying that the reptile incident was not the product of neglect, but rather an ordinary Phoenix summer power outage.
“It was not a result of negligence and is not specific to Game and Fish,” Johnson said in the statement. “Every summer I see overheated or deceased animals as a result of power outages.”
The statement also cites a Game and Fish veterinarian, Dr. Anne Justice-Allen, who attested to the good health of the animal collection. She said that Demlong’s leadership improved operations at Adobe Mountain.
“While some of the volunteers may have disliked the changes, the end result was an improved level of care and accountability at the Center,” Justice-Allen said.
Westerholm, however, has a different view of the changes under Demlong. She argues that problems at the wildlife center mounted, and her experience as an volunteer was no longer the same because of a toxic atmosphere in which volunteers were afraid to bring forward complaints.
“The environment had changed. The care for the animal had changed,” Westerholm said. “What you were allowed to participate in had changed.”
One week after Adobe Mountain closed in May, Demlong resigned from his job at the Game and Fish Department.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Demlong worked as a wildlife specialist for the department between 2009 and 2011 before joining the department's education program. Before he resigned, Demlong had served as wildlife program education manager for nearly six years, according to his personnel file.
Records show Demlong told his superiors on April 30 that he had accepted another position outside of the department. His resignation was effective May 18, a few months after New Times began making inquiries about the animal deaths and concerns about his management from former volunteers.
In a statement, the department claimed Demlong had given "verbal notice" one year in advance of his desire to leave state service, but agreed to remain with Game and Fish until the closure of Adobe Mountain was completed.
When New Times reached Demlong by phone on Friday, he hung up immediately.