Agency admits it puts frequent violators, such as Topeka Zoo, on tighter leash
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Agency admits it puts frequent violators, such as Topeka Zoo, on tighter leash

By James Carlson, on

A push in recent years by the federal government for more frequent enforcement of zoos with repeat violations has resulted in a rash of inspections at the Topeka Zoo at a rate far greater than the state's other facilities, say the zoo's director and animal advocacy groups.

In total, the U.S. Department of Agriculture since 2007 has inspected the Topeka Zoo seven times, resulting in 33 citations for noncompliance. In that same period, the USDA conducted 32 inspections of the state's nine other zoos, resulting in 37 citations for noncompliance.

Catherine Doyle, campaign director of In Defense of Animals, said she listened in on a USDA teleconference in May in which federal officials told stakeholders they wanted to improve consistency and aggressiveness of inspections.

"The bottom line was that they were stepping up enforcement," she said.

Past and ongoing audits by the USDA's inspector general appear to have prompted at least some of the changes.

A 2005 audit about the animal care division's inspection and enforcement activities dealt mainly with a need to follow up inspections with further investigation. But it also recommended the agency "conduct more frequent reviews of facilities identified as repeat violators."

Just this May, another internal audit about dog breeders highlighted the need for more consistency in inspections, a push that some say has seeped into the inspection process for animal exhibitors, such as zoos.

Now, the USDA's inspector general is currently auditing the agency to evaluate whether it "has controls to safeguard both the animals and members of the public" who visit zoos, said inspector general spokesman Paul Feeney.

"Because of these audits, they are beefing up their inspections," said Don Elroy, an official with the animal rights group Stop Animal Exploitation Now!

USDA spokesman David Sacks said any shift in inspection policy is "not the start of a focus on animal welfare here at USDA but rather an improvement to our current processes."

Topeka Zoo director Brendan Wiley said he has no problem with the evolution of inspection procedures. But the facility is having to learn as it goes.

In past years, there were grades to the noncompliant items, from those violations that don't affect animals to the ones that could harm them, he said. Now, Wiley said the scale is more black and white, a violation or not.

"The standards haven't changed from 10 years ago, but how that standard is interpreted may be different," he said. "And there isn't a guide that tells you how these standards are evaluated, only what the standards are."

That has resulted in some recent citations drawing the ire of the city.

In early June, city manager Norton Bonaparte expressed frustration at a USDA inspection that followed two break-ins at the zoo in which a vandal or vandals cut through the exterior fence. The inspection cited the zoo because of the fence, which Bonaparte pointed out had been adequate and passed inspection for decades.

Wiley noted another citation. In April, the USDA cited the zoo for a bear that was chewing on items thrown into its cage by visitors. The USDA said the zoo needed to ensure the bear enclosure was structurally sound and maintained to protect the animal.

"You start looking at that line," Wiley said, "and if you read too much into it then you go down the road where every animal needs to be in a glass bubble because that is essentially what the USDA is enforcing."

Sacks said the USDA is moving more quickly to investigate facilities with repeat noncompliance items. The agency is currently investigating the Topeka Zoo for a series of animal deaths between 2006 and 2008. That investigation could result in action as small as a warning up to a fine or revocation of the zoo's license to exhibit animals.

The USDA originally cited the zoo for those deaths in a series of inspections beginning in August 2009.

That began a low period for the zoo in which it was inspected by the USDA five times in nine months, its professional organization tabled its accreditation, and the majority of its management left or were terminated.

Wiley's job remains a hectic one.

He said the zoo is on its way to forming an action plan to submit to the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the zoo's accrediting agency whose standards are higher than those of the USDA. The AZA will decide in March whether to continue to accredit the Topeka Zoo or pull accreditation. A loss of that status would bruise the zoo's reputation and prevent it from sharing animals with other AZA facilities.

Meanwhile, Elroy's SAEN group has asked the USDA to suspend the zoo's license, which would close the zoo to the public. The USDA, per its regulations, will conduct another inspection soon, it said. When it comes, how it interprets the regulations will be watched.

"I don't want to say this is bad at all," Wiley said. "It may just take some time to understand how the USDA is operating in response to the issues raised in their audits."

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