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."
According to Leslie, because rodent populations are cyclic and often increase in number during particular seasons, the state has asked the zoo to continue sampling indefinitely. The state did not issue the zoo any guidelines for capturing the animals.
"We're probably fairly close to stopping, but we haven't really had a meeting and said the goal is to stop it this month," Leslie says. "Basically [we] wanted to do it throughout this summer to see if there was a trend that would repeat itself."
Zoo officials posted warnings last summer asking visitors not to feed animals they encountered on zoo paths.
Four species of small animals -- cottontail rabbits, round-tail ground squirrels, rock squirrels and cotton rats -- are believed to have spread the disease on zoo grounds.
Zoo officials estimate 1,300 of those animals have been captured by staff and killed by on-site veterinarians as part of a monitoring program for infectious disease. The monthly sample, according to officials, was between 25 and 35 animals tested.
By July, it was determined that even more animals needed to be tested because of a resurgence in the cotton rat population.
Fifty employees of the living collections department, including zoo keepers and horticulturists, received this notice:
"LET THE RODENT/RABBIT GAMES BEGIN!!!! Starting Monday, July 2, 2001, LC will be hosting a friendly (and I do mean friendly) rodent/rabbit trapping competition between all the LC areas."
Employees trapping the most animals were told they would receive instant reward certificates, redeemable for extra pay, time off from work or online Internet shopping.
"This was done because we recognize this is not a pleasant and desirable part of the job function," says Piland. "What was done was an attempt to provide a positive incentive for employees to provide the level of specimens necessary."
The contest involved teams from each of the zoo's four trails -- Tropics, Africa, Arizona and Discovery -- as well as the horticulture department.
Each area received 40 traps. For the teams to receive credit for a capture, the animals had to be logged on a sheet at the zoo's animal control center.
Piland says the contest was intended to be a "one-time activity." No employee was forced to participate.
"We would have respected that concern" had someone objected to taking part, he says.
No one did.
The contest announcement, written in a festive, lively tone, leaned heavily on the term "friendly competition." Yet, specific rules outlined in the announcement point to the possibility that there was concern such an event might encourage excessive behavior.
Workers were told not to sabotage one another's traps. Not to release animals caught by other teams. Not to bring animals from home to beef up their numbers. Not to try to catch animals on other team's trails.
Piland denies that the contest encouraged zoo workers to go beyond reasonable means.
He argues that the zoo must take adequate measures to control an overwhelming problem.
The zoo's efforts are hampered by its location. A nearby golf course offers lush vegetation that attracts animals close to the zoo's boundaries. The manmade ponds and water exhibits inside the zoo also can attract animals. Then there is the constant presence of animal food.
Piland says the zoo does not use chemicals to combat vermin. Employees, he says, do not use air rifles to hunt animals down.
As for allegations that animals have been stoned to death or shot, either before or during the contest, Piland says he has no knowledge of anything like that occurring.
"Quite frankly, I can't imagine any of our staff participating in anything like that," he says, "and it most certainly would not be condoned."
Eng, who oversees the sampling of the specimens, says no animal has ever been brought to the control center with injuries consistent with those of being stoned or shot.
Such specimens would be unusable, he says, because the best test for disease involves drawing blood. Once an animal is dead, the body stops producing fresh blood.
Eng says the zoo likely will continue trapping and testing animals through June 2002.
Dealing with outside populations is not a new phenomenon for zoos.
The institutions are like any business or home, vulnerable to insects, animals or other pests that can slip inside. Sometimes they contaminate food supplies; other times, they disrupt lives.
Zoos, however, have to be more careful about how they deal with such problems. State and federal regulations limit the measures that can be used to get rid of unwanted animal guests.
Officials at three other major U.S. zoos say that strict measures exist for controlling outside populations that might threaten exotic animal collections.
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None of those zoos -- Zoo Atlanta, Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle and the San Diego Zoo -- have ever sponsored a contest similar to the one in Phoenix.
"I think most zoos today are trying to deal with vermin," says Terry Maple, director of Zoo Atlanta for the past 17 years. "I think the problem for all of us is to do it in a humane and sensitive way. I think it also has to be effective, which is what makes it a challenge. The most effective ways are not humane."
In Phoenix, Piland says the zoo is being humane.
"We've made an effort to co-exist. Co-existing may mean we need to interact and take samples and take steps to manage populations," Piland says. "We've tried to make the best of a difficult situation."