Editorial: Zoo failing
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Editorial: Zoo failing

By The Capital-Journal Editorial Board

January 26, 2010 - 11:36pm

An inspection team sent by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums to scrutinize operations at the Topeka Zoo pulled no punches in its report to city officials. To say the inspectors' findings were damning would be a huge understatement.

The zoo's administration, management, procedures — or lack thereof — and exhibits all shared in the criticism meted out by the three visiting inspectors, associated with zoos in Chicago, St. Louis and Tacoma, Wash.

Many of the critical points — especially those associated with the Topeka Zoo's administration, management and procedures — could be laid at the feet of former director Mike Coker, who retired in December after city officials learned he had been less than honest about the 2006 death of a hippopotamus and the role faulty equipment may have played in that loss. And that was not the first time Coker had omitted important details in reports to the public and city officials.

However, it would be a big mistake to think Coker's absence alone will fix the zoo's many problems, which have been years in the making.

Topeka City Councilman John Alcala was correct when he said Monday the AZA report makes it clear the zoo would benefit from an administrative reorganization.

One doesn't have to read the inspection report with a magnifying glass to discern that while there may have been a chain of command and some shared responsibility on paper, in reality the zoo was managed from the top down and the director was making the decisions — big and small, including what the public needed to know and didn't need to know.

Inspectors noted that personnel movements appeared to have been based of favoritism rather than merit, performance evaluations and disciplinary measures lacked objectivity and zoo staff members didn't understand or didn't have a procedure through which they could report animal welfare issues with any confidence their concerns would be addressed. The inspectors also said the zoo curator was too isolated from day to day activities.

Coker had been at the Topeka Zoo for 33 years when he retired, and had been its director since 2001. It's not unheard of for people with such tenure to develop a proprietary feeling toward an organization, particularly when they find themselves in control. But the zoo is owned by the public, and cannot be treated as the domain of one person, one city official or any collection of city officials.

City manager Norton Bonaparte expects to have another report on his desk by Feb. 8, from a team assigned to review the AZA report and draft a response. City officials then plan to attend the organization's midyear meeting on March 3 to head off a potential attempt to revoke the Topeka Zoo's accreditation with the group.

When they go to that meeting, at Virginia Beach, Va., city officials should be carrying a response that includes a new organizational plan with sufficient layers of responsibility and oversight to convince the AZA the zoo can be properly managed in the best interest of its animals and the public.

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