The federal investigation -- the second of the Phoenix facility in recent years -- could result in substantial fines and, if serious violations are documented, the revocation of the zoo's operating license.
The USDA, which oversees animal exhibitors, dealers and research facilities across the United States, confirmed last week that it is specifically looking at possible violations to the Animal Welfare Act, a comprehensive law that encompasses everything from maintenance and upkeep of animal facilities to animal treatment, veterinary care and recordkeeping.
Tinkerbell, according to internal zoo documents obtained by New Times, died of starvation January 11 ("Quilled," John W. Allman, March 14). For nearly a year, her handlers punished her for not performing well during public exhibitions by consistently reducing the amount of food she received, the documents showed.
The Maricopa County Sheriff's Office investigated the incident following an anonymous complaint. Chief veterinarian Dr. Curtis Eng told an animal cruelty investigator that the porcupine became "despondent" after being placed on a restrictive diet, and that the animal "stopped eating, basically starving itself to death."
The sheriff's office, based on Eng's explanation, determined no criminal conduct had occurred.
The zoo, which took no disciplinary action following Tinkerbell's death, conducted an internal case study. The study concluded the animal was "not maintained to the health and husbandry standards of this institution resulting in its premature death."
Zoo officials, including Director Jeff Williamson, have refused repeated interview requests since February to discuss Tinkerbell's death.
On April 29, Aimee Barwegen, a zoo spokeswoman, confirmed that USDA investigators have visited the zoo to gather information about Tinkerbell.
"We have cooperated and are cooperating with them fully," Barwegen says. "Any results coming from the USDA are still pending and, according to them, they have informed us it could take up to two months to determine what, if any, results they will find."
The USDA got involved in late April after stories about the animal deaths were sent to the agency by Tempe animal rights activist Patricia Haight, a research consultant for the animal rights group In Defense of Animals.
Robert Gibbens, director of the USDA's western region for animal care, wrote to Haight on April 19. "A formal investigation into the circumstances surrounding the death of the porcupine has been initiated," he said. "If violations are found, enforcement action appropriate for the circumstances will be sought."
This is the second time the Phoenix Zoo has faced federal scrutiny. The facility received a letter of warning in May 1998 after USDA investigators confirmed that the zoo had failed to "provide adequate barriers between the public and dangerous animals," which resulted in human injury, according to USDA spokesman Jim Rogers.
Details of that incident were not immediately available. A warning carries no penalty, but is placed on file and can be used to augment any future investigations, Rogers says.
The zoo, since last year, has weathered an increasing number of questionable occurrences involving its treatment of animals.
In July 2001, the zoo sponsored a contest, the "Rodent/Rabbit Games," to encourage employees to compete for money to catch the most rabbits, squirrels and rats roaming zoo grounds.
In January, Tinkerbell died.
In early February, a pregnant anaconda recently received by the zoo from South America died. Zoo employees say there was a dispute over medical care that contributed to the snake's death. Zoo director Williamson, in a letter to New Times, denied that any dispute occurred.
In March, an iguana named Stumpy received serious burns to most of its lower body after a heating pad was left in its cage. The iguana, according to zoo employees, had a portion of its tail removed because of its injuries. The zoo also denied that assertion.
Rogers says the Animal Welfare Act only protects warm-blooded animals, excluding rats, mice and birds. It does not protect reptiles, and also does not provide regulation for wild animals, only those kept in captivity by zoos and research facilities. He says any incidents involving reptiles, vermin or animals that encroach on zoo grounds are not eligible for investigation.
Because Tinkerbell was an exhibit animal, her death can be examined.
The USDA declined to discuss its investigation in detail.
The zoo, if found in violation, could face a fine of $2,750 per animal for every day a serious violation occurred. Rogers says the agency also can take other actions, including suspending or revoking a license, or disqualifying a license-holder.
Revocation would mean the zoo could keep its exotic animal collection, but the USDA would no longer allow the 40-year-old facility to provide public viewing of the animals. Such extreme measures have occurred before, Rogers says. Revocations, however, are not as common as license suspensions or disqualifications, which typically apply only to zoos and animal facilities caught operating without a license.
In addition to monetary fines and licensing sanctions, Rogers says the USDA has the authority to seize animal collections or move animals to other zoos if serious violations are determined.
Often, he says, disciplinary action is handled quietly and without legal intervention.
"Usually, people settle out of court," he says. "Sometimes people give up their license as a condition of a settlement."
Regardless of the investigation's outcome, animal activist Haight says she is glad to see the zoo receive attention.
"I don't know where it will lead," she says. "I think every time the zoo knows there are agencies that have jurisdiction looking into them, they're more likely to correct things that are wrong if there are things over there that are wrong."