Gary Chazen, chairman of the board of the Friends of the Zoo, talks to the Chattanooga City Council in this file photo.Staff Photo by Tim Barber
The Friends of the Zoo's board, which took over the operation of the Chattanooga Zoo in September, has contracted a $25,000 consultant study to examine everything from the zoo's management team to its policies.
"Everything is on the table," said board Chairman Gary Chazen, who, with two other board members, addressed the Chattanooga City Council's Legal and Legislative Committee on Tuesday afternoon.
In a separate meeting Tuesday, the group also talked with editors and reporters at the Chattanooga Times Free Press.
"We know there are some issues there [at the zoo], and obviously we're going to try to get to the bottom of it," Chazen told the Times Free Press.
The consultants began work last month and another meeting between the zoo board and the consultants is planned in the next few weeks. The board hopes to have the final report in March or April, members said.
Chazen and board members Mickey Myers and Robin Derryberry said the zoo has asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and the consulting firm of Schultz & Williams to help.
The board also is awaiting necropsies for the seven animals that died in a month's time over the holidays, said Myers, who also is a veterinarian.
"You have members of the board who take it very personally that there are management pieces that aren't right down there," Myers said. "That's why everything's on the table here — from pay scales to job descriptions to see if we need to terminate some people."
Friends of the Zoo was formed in 1985, amid a push to close or improve the then-deteriorating Warner Park petting zoo. In September, on the heels of a very critical city internal audit of the zoo, the City Council approved a contract with the Friends of the Zoo to take over its operation.
Zoo Director Darde Long attended the council meeting, but she did not address council members.
Noting that the Friends board has "only been in charge for a short period of time," Myers said the board is still trying to get its arms around the loss of some "key personnel" who moved to other city jobs to keep their pension and benefits, which he said Friends can't match.
"This board was not responsible for anything until a few months ago," he said. "We took it over in the midst of this horrible audit."
In the council committee meeting, Chazen and Myers took questions.
Deborah Scott, councilwoman for District 1, wanted an explanation for why zoo officials didn't know the snow leopard they'd been trying to breed was pregnant. She gave birth to three cubs, two of which died while she was locked outside her shelter in inclement weather.
"It's hard for me to understand why, only the day before a birth, would a person just be[come] aware that the animal is pregnant -- and to the point of delivery," she told Chazen, Myers, Derryberry and board member Pete Serodino.
Myers said zoo officials didn't do an ultrasound exam on the snow leopard because of advice from the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine.
He said experts there told zoo officials that anesthetizing the leopard to conduct the test could be too risky. Also, Myers said, scientific literature shows snow leopards normally don't breed at times that prompt births in December, January and February.
"So most everybody involved told us there's no way she can be pregnant," he said.
Chazen characterized the spate of animal deaths as "a perfect storm."
But he assured the council committee that there will be changes.
"Once we have the above facts in hand, we will act responsibly, appropriately and quickly to make changes as necessary," he said. "Look, we love our animals there, and they are our priority."
Pam Sohn has been reporting or editing Chattanooga news for 25 years. A Walden’s Ridge native, she began her journalism career with a 10-year stint at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. She came to the Chattanooga Times Free Press in 1999 after working at the Chattanooga Times for 14 years. She has been a city editor, Sunday editor, wire editor, projects team leader and assistant lifestyle editor. As a reporter, she also has covered the police, ...