Gulf Breeze zoo troubles

August 18, 2006

This is a Sunday, Aug. 13 story from the Northwest Florida Daily News in Fort Walton Beach about The Zoo losing its accreditation in the aftermath of Hurricane Ivan and its struggles to recover.

Trouble in the animal kingdom
Under zoo management: Gulf Breeze zoo loses accreditation as new director
blames hurricanes and lower attendance.

By TOM McLAUGHLIN
tomm@nwfdailynews.com

GULF BREEZE — One of the signature moments in Pat Quinn’s long tenure as
owner-operator of The Zoo came in 1988 when the facility gained membership
in the elite American Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
At that time, only 164 of the 2,000 licensed zoos and aquariums in the
United States were so accredited. Membership now stands at 210 of 2,400
licensed exhibitors.
This year The Zoo lost the AZA accreditation Quinn and his family had
worked to obtain and keep from the time it opened in the 1960s until his
retirement.
Quinn said learning of the lost accreditation felt very similar to Sept.
1, 2004, the day he gave control of The Zoo to the nonprofit corporation
Gulf Coast Zoological Society.
“It was like turning loose of your baby,” he said.
Although The Zoo is still licensed to operate, losing its accreditation
could prove costly. It puts The Zoo at risk of losing animals it has on
loan from AZA-
accredited institutions and from adding other loaned animals to its
collection.
One AZA-accredited zoo has already contacted The Zoo about returning a
male orangutan it had loaned several years ago. The male has been a
successful breeding partner for a female The Zoo owns. The apes are
raising their fourth offspring.
The AZA decision to pull The Zoo’s accreditation was made at a March 29
hearing after inspectors found 38 zoo practices to be “questionable” and
24 more “unacceptable.” The Zoo’s subsequent appeal was denied.
Zoo officials question nearly all of the charges, which concern animal
care practices, safety, finances and more.
Officials at The Zoo say the AZA has not treated them fairly; its
inspectors refused to take into account that the facility had survived
hits from two hurricanes and three tropical storms in 2004 and 2005.
Zoo administrators also reacted angrily last year when the AZA’s
membership jumped to raise money for New Orleans’ zoo following Hurricane
Katrina, a year after virtually ignoring The Zoo following Hurricane Ivan.
Natalie Akin, The Zoo’s director of visitor services and business
operations, suspects the Gulf Breeze zoo might even have been blackballed
by the AZA for its outspokenness.
“Our stance, ‘How can you justify giving money to one zoo and not
another?’ I think that affected this tremendously,” Akin said. “Now that
we’re not accredited we don’t have a voice.”
Denny Lewis, AZA’s director of accreditation programs, declined to comment
on why The Zoo lost its accreditation. He did say AZA inspectors “weighed
everything” they’d compiled during their visit.
“Nobody gets straight A’s,” Lewis said.
Certain complaints
Several volunteers and former employees believe that The Zoo is no longer
as well run as it was when Quinn had the reins. They accuse the zoo of bad
practices, including keeping animals in cramped quarters.
“It’s just not managed well at all,” said Carol Samuels, a volunteer
docent at The Zoo. “The docents just want to love on the animals. When you
see mistreatment of animals, I question it.
“I’m known as a troublemaker because I keep talking about things,” Samuels
said. “I don’t know what the solution is.”
Doug Kemper, The Zoo’s executive director, suspects that such complaints
stem from his management style.
“People don’t like changes. Pat Quinn managed one way, I manage another,”
he said. “My style is a broader-based team approach.”
However, Kemper admits that the animals’ accommodations could use some
improvements.
Certainly at this time The Zoo has more animals than room to properly
display them.
The Zoo’s aviary, a centerpiece exhibit before Ivan, is now littered with
debris and overgrown with brush. Plans call for it to be repaired, but the
ibises and spoonbills that had called it home now live in a small fenced
enclosure and will be sent away until the aviary is repaired.
Parrots taken in after Marine Life Oceanarium in Gulfport, Miss., was
destroyed by Hurricane Katrina live in small cages scattered around The
Zoo. Vague rumors of wild dogs, leopards and venomous snakes stored in a
Discovery Center building closed to the public are rampant among employees
and ex-employees.
When asked about the rumors, Kemper said several breeds of animals were
housed at one time in the Discovery Center building. The temporary housing
was utilized only for “a couple of months” following the storms in 2004
and 2005, he said.
“There were a couple of months when that building had more animals in it
than we would have liked,” he said.
Entire exhibit areas have been destroyed by storms, Diane Norris, the
director of animal husbandry, said as she walked the grounds last week.
The Zoo’s staff and grounds crew have repaired many of them, but some
animals remain temporarily quartered in smaller-than-desirable enclosures
as work continues to find proper housing.
The disgruntled volunteers and ex-employees say current zoo managers have
taken on more wildlife than their staff is capable or qualified to care
for.
“When you see animals treated so poorly it’s very disheartening. You don’t
want to be part of it anymore,” said docent Carol Mills.
Mills said concerns expressed by volunteers like herself tend to fall on
deaf ears.
“To me, if you see something with the animals, you take that to
management. But if you bring anything up to their attention they don’t
want you on the grounds,” she said.
Kemper said all employee and volunteer concerns are addressed.
“There’s not one iota of truth to that (allegation that complaints have
been ignored),” he said. “We work pretty much as an open team.”
Hurricane hardships
When the AZA dropped in on The Zoo, it found an organization still reeling
from two consecutive hurricane seasons.
On Sept. 16, 2004, Hurricane Ivan, whose eye passed within a few miles of
The Zoo, knocked down 400 trees on the 50-acre compound, killed 23 animals
and damaged enclosures, fences, walkways and buildings. Hurricane Dennis,
while not nearly as damaging as Ivan, took nearly the same path through
the Navarre area.
In early 2004, the nonprofit zoological society was preparing to take over
management of The Zoo and had begun implementing some of its programs,
said Akin, the director of visitor services and business operations.
Kemper had “turned the budget around $400,000” for the positive, she
said.“He (Kemper) came in with plans. Everything changed dramatically with
the storms.” For safety reasons, zoo employees couldn’t accept all of
the volunteer cleanup help that was offered, she said. The Zoo team spent
months after Ivan clearing debris, cleaning putrid ponds full of dead
catfish and doing what it could to repair and reopen.
Akin estimated the overall damage at $600,000, but The Zoo’s insurance
company paid off only $59,000.
“We don’t know how this happened,” she said. “It’s one of the things we’re
trying to figure out.”
Zoo officials have also been told they’re not eligible for a Small
Business Administration loan, Akin said. She blamed a paperwork issue on
the federal agency’s interpretation that the Gulf Coast Zoological Society
didn’t own The Zoo when Ivan hit.
So zoo officials limped through 2005 with little help from outside the
Gulf Breeze community.
Employees spent months removing and grinding up trees. Areas where tree
roots had pulled up sidewalks were roped off and fencing was installed to
get the animals back on the grounds.
“We came through and made it as a team,” Akin said. “It was clear if we
didn’t step up and do something there was no help coming.”
No help from the AZA
But the AZA did come to the rescue of the Audubon Nature Institute in
New Orleans. That zoo received $700,000 — Akin said she’d heard the amount
has risen to $1 million — from fellow AZA members.
“They deserved help, but there was no consideration given to our desperate
needs here,” said Susan Leveille, The Zoo’s director of education.
Kemper made The Zoo’s position clear in a letter to the AZA dated Nov. 29,
2005.
“We certainly do not begrudge the Audubon Institute,” the letter said in
part. “A worthy and charitable AZA program should not, however, be set up
to benefit but one institution or member while ignoring other deserving
members.”
Kemper’s letter notes that The Zoo had been closed for more than five
months in a 13-month span during 2004-05. The letter claims a 30 percent
drop in visitors and related revenues and debt accumulation “resulting in
a negative fiscal swing of over $1.8 million.”
AZA officials responded by stating that Kemper’s points were being
addressed. It also stated that funds collected were not directly raised by
the AZA, but by member institutions.
The association also declined The Zoo’s requests to delay an inspection
scheduled for March of this year.
“We had decided we would let our AZA accreditation lapse. That would give
us a little time to get back on our feet,” Akin said. “AZA said that was
not a good idea. They said they would come in and overlook some of the
things clearly caused by the storm.”
The Zoo’s staff says the AZA report indicates that storm damage was not
overlooked as had been promised.
The Zoo received ratings of unacceptable for “general appearance given by
exhibits,” “sidewalks and roadways in good repair,” “animal enclosures
provide for the physical and psychological well-being of specimens” and
“sufficient space or sufficient volume of water for … animals.”
The Zoo was also hit for the categories “is the public adequately
protected from the animal collection” and “is the perimeter fence
independent of all animal enclosures.”
In other areas inspectors found unacceptable, such as mislabeling a
quarantine area, zoo staffers admitted to mistakes or errors in judgment.
Some of those, they added, could have been cleared up if the AZA
inspectors would have asked simple questions.
“About 85 percent of the concerns they expressed, if they’d have asked us
a question we could have explained,” said Norris, the director of animal
husbandry.
Despite all the setbacks, zoo officials have vowed to carry on without
accreditation — at least until they can successfully reapply.
“Are we surviving? Yes,” Akin said. “Are we thriving? No.”
However, there is evidence that the facility may be on its way back to
profitability, Akin said. The Zoo, whose plans for establishing large
Australian Outback exhibits and an Environmental Science Learning Center
have been put on hold, has instead decided to bring in smaller, less
expensive, but interesting exhibits to attract customers.
She said visitation is up. A Komodo dragon exhibit and recently opened
alligator exhibit have drawn big crowds.
“We’ll break even if we bring in 150,000 guests this year,” Akin said. “We
should make that easily. If we can reach 180,000 we’ll start putting back
reserves.”

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2 Responses to “Gulf Breeze zoo troubles”

  1. tracy Says:

    I think it is due time that people know what is going on out there. Great job!!! I would have liked to hear more from the ladies quoted (I am involved on the inside of the zoo as well and know it cost them being able to continue out there). They do much more than love on the animals…….many of us buy what ever is needed for the animals. The docent program just spent $4,000 on fans and cooling supplies for the animals….these are things the zoo should be able to pay for.
    When is the next article?


  2. […] out, The Gulf Breeze Zoo has been through some troubled times, and they’re still dealing with a number of challenges at this […]

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