Turmoil at the Austin Zoo: Documenting a zookeepers' revolt

How zookeepers came together to question animal care, leadership at private Austin facility

Lions Sango and Jelani relax in their enclosure at the Austin Zoo last week. The zoo has been grappling with accusations from some of its zookeepers that management decisions have caused animals to suffer. (RALPH BARRERA/ FOR THE AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

For one zookeeper, a long-suffering monkey's death launched a revolt.

Annie was a patas monkey, a large species native to Central Africa, who went blind in 2010, forcing the Austin Zoo to separate her from her peers. Categorized as a dangerous animal, she had no contact with other monkeys or humans for years, zookeepers and the zoo's representatives told the American-Statesman. She was bitten by a rattlesnake and endured a series of strokes that left her partially paralyzed, unable to sit up or feed herself. She developed bed sores all the way to the bone, despite efforts to clean her and prop her on stuffed animals, zookeeper Kris Ledoux said.

Ledoux and other keepers who cared for Annie told the Statesman they believed she was living in pain, would not recover and should be euthanized. But they said the zoo's director wouldn't do it.

Various zookeepers for years had been troubled by decisions made by Austin Zoo leadership that they say caused animals to languish in pain and put their human handlers at risk. They also say management discouraged second opinions or constructive criticism. Off and on, they had discussed whether they could do anything about it.

On April 3, five of them met at a Chuy's restaurant to craft a letter to the zoo's board of directors, listing problems they saw and demanding a change in leadership.

Patti Clark, photographed by the capuchin monkey enclosure in 2016, is both the zoo's executive director and president of its board of directors. (DEBORAH CANNON / AMERICAN STATESMAN)

Within months, the effort would backfire. Multiple employees would be fired. The board would back zoo Director Patti Clark. And the letter would highlight disputes over what the end of a captive animal’s life should look like.

Twenty-four current and former Austin Zoo staff members, 17 of them zookeepers, spoke to the Statesman about what they described as unorthodox animal care techniques, an unwillingness to euthanize suffering animals and acts of retaliation against keepers who raised concerns at the nonprofit facility. Most requested that they not be identified for fear of retaliation in their current jobs or poor references for future ones. The Statesman also obtained numerous emails and other documents describing problems at the zoo.

A board member and a public relations consultant hired by the zoo attribute the accusations to a “clique” of employees trying to bring down Clark, who is both the zoo's director and president of its board.

Clark declined to answer questions from the Statesman. Instead, the public relations firm issued a statement from Clark saying safety for animals, staffers and guests is her top priority.

“This requires focus, attention to detail and collaboration throughout the organization, as well as the total commitment of our staff to abide by strict protocols and a chain of command,” Clark's statement said. “It is our zookeepers’ responsibility to share their observations and concerns, however, the diagnosis and medical treatment of our animals is and always will be determined exclusively by veterinarians.”

The argument that zookeepers have consistently raised concerns and those concerns were disregarded is utterly false. Management is not in any way overriding veterinary decisions. It just doesn’t happen.

Austin Zoo board member Rick King

Austin Zoo board member Rick King flatly denied the allegations of employees who spoke to the Statesman.

“The argument that zookeepers have consistently raised concerns and those concerns were disregarded is utterly false,” King said. “Management is not in any way overriding veterinary decisions. It just doesn’t happen.”

Several zookeepers disputed that, saying they had seen veterinary recommendations disregarded. They said they struggled with animal suffering they believe was worsened by management decisions. Last winter, monkeys lost parts of their tails to frostbite because their indoor enclosures didn't fully enclose them, keepers said. When canine distemper ravaged the zoo five years ago, those working there at the time said they saw lions and tigers fall to the ground and lie on their sides in their own waste for weeks until they died.

But for Ledoux, an Austin Zoo keeper for nine years, Annie is the animal who makes her cry when she talks about her. She thought for sure management would agree to put the monkey down last March, after her sixth stroke, when Ledoux said she could no longer move either side of her body and couldn’t eat or drink. The director didn’t. Ledoux said the zoo's former animal care manager instructed her to give Annie injections of pain medication and an appetite stimulant and to try to force-feed her.

It didn’t work. After five days, the approval finally came for the veterinarian to euthanize. Ledoux came to hold Annie.

“The vet didn’t make it,” Ledoux said. “She died in my arms. In agony. And that’s when we started writing the letter.”

Cougar cubs are introduced during a special viewing at the Austin Zoo in December 2015. A hunter, who had shot their mother, discovered the cubs and turned them over to wildlife officials. (DEBORAH CANNON / AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

A rescue facility

Austin is by far the largest American city not to have a major zoo accredited with the Association of Zoos & Aquariums. Instead, it has the Austin Zoo, a private, nonprofit animal rescue facility on 15 acres in the limestone hills southwest of Austin that, before the 1990s, had been a goat farm. Today, it houses more than 300 animals, from pigs to tigers, not all of them on display. It employs about 35 people.

At its helm is Clark, a 61-year-old former teacher and paralegal, who took over in 2007 to fix an organization widely considered a mess. In 12 years, she’s brought financial stability, turning $60,000 in credit card debt and miscellaneous bags of receipts and checks into a $2 million annual operation funded by admissions and donations, according to tax documents filed with the IRS.

Clark is the widow of state District Judge Harley Clark and the owner of various rental properties. She takes no salary to run the zoo full time.

Because the Austin Zoo is a rescue facility, many animals arrive with health problems. The small facility relies on a veterinarian based in Arizona and local vets as needed. Its zookeepers are expected to have biology degrees and at least two years of experience working with animals. With pay that starts at $10 an hour for grueling work and no benefits, the job's draw is the animals.

The small nonprofit has seen 24 employees leave in the past 13 months, at least five of them fired, according to a staff roster.

The Austin Zoo has more than 300 animals on 15 acres in the hills southwest of Austin. It made the transition from a goat farm to an animal rescue facility in the 1990s. (RALPH BARRERA/ FOR THE AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

The start of a rebellion

Last spring, about the same time Ledoux was force-feeding Annie, keepers who tended to large predators also were dealing with an end-of-life case they considered to be heartbreaking. Her name was Babs the bear.

Babs was 33, quite old for a black bear, when employees found her lying on her side alone in February, flailing when she attempted to move. When veterinary care failed to help, they sedated her and brought her inside to a kennel lined with a tarp. She lay there for the next six weeks, according to the zookeepers' accounts.

With Babs unable to sit up, zookeepers would give her water from a hose. When she wouldn’t eat, they would tie hotdogs and doughnuts to the end of a stick and try to force her to take it. Since she was lying in her own waste, unable to move, facilities employees would use two-by-fours to flip her twice a day.

“One night I went in to check on Babs, and there were rats on top of her, fighting over food that was in her fur,” former zookeeper Casey Ford told the Statesman.

That’s when the zoo’s longtime veterinarian, Dr. Leanne Jakubowsky, decided she’d had enough. Jakubowsky told the Statesman she couldn’t talk about specific animals but confirmed she had left the zoo partially in response to Babs, as well as general frustrations that her advice wasn’t taken.

“Essentially, I quit over that,” said Jakubowsky, who lives and practices in Austin. “I was in the same boat (as the zookeepers). I had some concerns and I felt like, ‘If you guys can’t trust me’ — one of the basics of a client-veterinarian relationship is trust, to trust me to make good decisions for the animals.”

Babs rebounded enough to be moved to a small outdoor pen for a few months and, on some days, would stand and walk. She died on a hot day in June.

By then, a group of six letter-writers had formed to voice concerns about the zoo's operations. One joined because of Annie, another because of Babs. One quit the zoo in frustration amid their efforts to write to the board. Ford was fired in July, accused of bullying a co-worker. (She later won a Texas Workforce Commission unjustified termination appeal for unemployment benefits.) One had started writing a letter to the board alone. Another had begun a complaint to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, alleging unsafe conditions in several zoo enclosures.

They sought input from other sympathetic keepers but kept the actual writing to themselves.

“We wanted to make sure there were still quality, competent keepers to take care of the animals if we were to be fired for this,” one of the six, Kelsey Johansen, later told Austin Zoo board members, according to a recording of a meeting.

What resulted was an unsigned 54-page listing of allegations of animal mistreatment and grievances against the zoo's management, sent to the five board members July 30. It included the tale of Joy, an elderly wolf, who was skinned and killed by peers who dug under their fencing to reach her from an adjoining enclosure. The letter said zookeepers had warned management that the wolves were digging.

It also included the story of Sookie the coati, a member of the raccoon family, who attacked and injured a zookeeper so badly the zookeeper needed surgeries for infections in her hand, according to keepers and the zoo. Zookeeper notes show the incident happened days after keepers warned that Sookie was attacking people and should be moved to an enclosure where keepers could be protected.

The letter spoke of the zoo's four male ostriches, which for years had attacked one another, plucking out large swaths of feathers. Standards of care for animal sanctuaries note that male ostriches should not be housed together.

King told the Statesman that the letter was riddled with inaccuracies, especially in portions raising cleanliness and health concerns, but neither he nor the public relations firm disputed the details of the particular animal cases the Statesman examined.

The letter also included a list of requested solutions. The top two items on the list: Adopt a veterinarian-developed end-of-life policy and stop allowing the same person to lead both the zoo and its board.

Two of the Austin Zoo's alligators live in stock tanks, where they're completely covered during cold weather months, without access to dry land or sunlight. (RALPH BARRERA/ FOR THE AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

A request for changes

Only about 10 percent of nonprofits the size of the Austin Zoo have a CEO who is also a voting board member, according to a study by BoardSource, which trains and advises nonprofits in best practices. Even fewer have a CEO who is a voting board president.

BoardSource recommends that organizations allow the CEO to attend board meetings but strongly discourages allowing him or her to vote.

“It just creates so many opportunities for conflicts,” said Andy Davis, the organization’s director of leadership initiatives and education.

High on that list of conflicts is a CEO having the ability to weigh in on appointing new board members, Davis said. In the zoo’s case, Clark recommends new board appointments.

Other requests listed in the zookeepers' letter included not taking in any more animals until the current ones have proper enclosures and allowing zookeepers to speak directly with vets.

Austin Zoo board member Rick King, right, walks the grounds with Andrew Passino, deputy director of facilities, in mid-January. King disputed zookeepers' accusations about questionable animal care as personal attacks by a small clique of disgruntled employees. (RALPH BARRERA/ FOR THE AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

King, who is a lawyer, said the zookeepers’ requests — both in the initial letter and later, as the keepers grew angrier — were over the line and wildly inappropriate. He told the Statesman the zoo follows veterinarian recommendations regarding the care of dying animals and thus has no need for a written policy.

Separating the CEO and board president positions has never been considered, King said. “That model has worked incredibly well,” he said. “We have an executive director who has taken the zoo under her leadership from, literally, a facility that had like a $19 profit a year to one that is often over $600,000.”

Most zoos have some kind of end-of-life or euthanasia policy; it’s a requirement for those accredited with the Association of Zoos & Aquariums. The Austin Zoo recently became accredited with the Zoological Association of America, a smaller organization with less stringent requirements.

Representatives of the Association of Zoos & Aquariums and eight U.S. zoos all declined to discuss the allegations concerning the Austin Zoo with the Statesman.

One point of concern for zookeepers was the zoo's four male ostriches, who regularly attack and pluck large portions of feathers from one another. A new enclosure for the ostriches is being built. (RALPH BARRERA/ FOR THE AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

Months of tension

Upon receiving the letter, the board hired an employment attorney and a public relations firm. The zoo fired John Gramieri, its curator and animal care manager, who had been partially relieved of his duties after an incident with an employee in July. It's unclear whether the letter played any role in his firing.

The five-member board designated three members to investigate the letter’s claims, recusing Clark and Carl Alberty, whose mother is a zoo employee. Part of that committee’s role was also to examine Clark’s leadership, King told the Statesman. Emails obtained by the newspaper show King forwarded the committee-only emails, as well as communications with the still-anonymous letter writers, to Clark.

In one mid-August exchange about a bobcat and a wolf the zookeepers believed to be in pain, King reminded the three committee members to keep emails between themselves. Copies of emails show he then forwarded the thread to Clark, warning her not to tell then-board member Tammy Greenblum.

Emails show tensions were rising quickly between King and Greenblum, who began defending the zookeepers and echoing some of their animal care concerns. Greenblum generally declined to discuss zoo politics with the Statesman but said the investigation was supposed to be independent and she did not know King was sending the committee's communications back to Clark.

The letter writers, meanwhile, set up an anonymous email account and said they would identify themselves only if the board would meet with them in person. A month after they sent the letter, they threatened to file a lawsuit and go public.

The zookeepers say that Clark, unaware of which zookeepers had turned against her, began to take actions the keepers considered retaliatory. They said she created a new tardiness policy and then applied it retroactively and said she declined to promote any zookeepers into a vacant role taking care of large predators, considered the zoo’s most dangerous and most senior keeper positions. Instead, she assigned her assistant, an administrative aide without animal experience, to join the team feeding lions and tigers.

Matt Miklaw, who was then the head zookeeper, trained the aide but told board members he was deeply uncomfortable about the decision.

“It’s obvious retaliatory behavior,” Miklaw told the board of Clark's decision, according to a recording of the meeting. “That put myself in danger. That put my staff in danger. The zoo. The guests."

King told the Statesman that none of Clark’s actions was retaliatory and said Clark thought her assistant had better judgment than the zookeepers next in line to move up. The aide was later fired after a clash over her administrative duties.

Zookeeper Lindsay McCullough greets Rusty, a capuchin monkey, inside the Primate Palace at the Austin Zoo. (RALPH BARRERA/ FOR THE AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

An investigation ends

By late September, the board (minus Clark) agreed to meet with the letter writers and Miklaw. It was an emotional meeting. The keepers and former keepers presented a slideshow with photos and videos of animals in misery.

To show a yearslong pattern, they revisited a distemper outbreak in 2014, when multiple large cats succumbed. They showed board members videos of a lion falling over repeatedly in a small caged area and a tiger, unable to sit or stand, kicking one leg and drooling. Both animals were euthanized, but only after weeks of immobile agony, lying in their own feces and urine, when it should have been clear they would not recover, keepers said.

“They flip them by tying ropes around their legs and then having (a) facilities (crew) yank until they roll over, because their urine burns their skin and they literally just have sores all over their whole body,” said former zookeeper Patrick Lynch, according to a recording of the meeting.

They talked about Annie and Babs. They talked about prairie dogs being placed in a poorly designed enclosure with sand instead of dirt, where several had died from inhaling sand or being crushed when tunnels collapsed. They talked about alligators being kept in stock tanks, covered by plywood in the winter so they have no access to sunlight or dry ground.

Miklaw, while not involved in writing the letter, nonetheless backed its authors and offered a blunt assessment of animal care and the zoo's leadership. He had been at the zoo for more than five years and promoted twice. Five days after the meeting, he was fired.

Miklaw told the Statesman his firing was in retaliation for speaking up. King said that wasn't the case.

The day Miklaw was fired, the zoo's employment attorney drafted a suggested response to the letter writers that said the board had investigated the letter’s claims thoroughly, found no improper conduct and planned to make no changes to Clark’s role. The board did not send the response, but the investigation ended.

Greenblum resigned from the board Oct. 30. Clark, King and Toni Alberty, the mother of the board member, reacted with an email exchange mocking her as an “angry turtle.”

A zookeeper sweeps a recently constructed prairie dog enclosure Jan. 15. Multiple prairie dogs at the Austin Zoo died in the previous enclosure, which had high walls and sand instead of dirt. (RALPH BARRERA/ FOR THE AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

What now?

Since the letter, and the board's investigation, a few things have changed at the zoo.

The prairie dogs have a new enclosure, one not filled with sand, where none has died. A new ostrich enclosure is underway, being built after an anonymous complaint was filed with OSHA in September. Clark first said it would be complete in October but has requested multiple extensions for the project because of rain, according to OSHA correspondence.

The new animal care manager and new veterinarian are widely liked among the zookeepers, though the vet must fly to Austin periodically from her home in Arizona or advise local vets by video.

“Some things may be getting better, but if one person still has control of everything, they can revert back at any time,” Ford said. “The board claims to keep her in check. But if she’s the president, how can they do that? ... There should be checks and balances, especially when animal lives are at stake and human safety is a factor.”

After the letter, at least four other former keepers sent their own letters to the board, raising concerns. Of the 24 current and former staff members who spoke to the Statesman, two praised management and said the complaints in the letter were exaggerated. The others, even those who weren’t aware of the letter to the board, told similar stories of animals in their care they said suffered from management decisions and described times they were reprimanded for raising concerns.

Many emphasized how much they loved the animals and how badly they want better quality of care for them. Many said they had struggled to balance following orders they considered misguided with pushing back and risking termination.

“For a lot of us, it was our first zookeeping job and we didn’t know any better,” former zookeeper Marcy Griffith said of Clark’s approach to animal care. “Looking back now, it’s disgusting some of the things that I did, and I can’t believe I did it. … But a lot of us were afraid of her.”

King blamed any shortcomings in animal care on the keepers.

“The leading cause of animals dying or being injured is zookeeper negligence,” he said. “A lot of times, they lack the discipline and focus that you have to have."

A peacock displays his colors as seen on the grounds of the Austin Zoo. (RALPH BARRERA/ FOR THE AMERICAN-STATESMAN)