published Sunday, January 30th, 2011

Chattanooga Zoo staff seeking answers

  • photo
    The gate at the Chattanooga Zoo features zoo animals.
    Staff Photo by Angela Lewis

When Hank the chimp was found dead Monday, his death brought to light a string of unexplained animal deaths that has put the Chattanooga Zoo at Warner Park under a microscope.

Not since the early 1980s, just before Friends of the Zoo was formed in reaction to concerns over poor conditions, has the zoo faced such intense scrutiny.

A number of improvements have been made since then, including new exhibits with more space and improved habitats. In the last decade alone, the zoo has more than doubled its acreage and increased the size of its animal collection.

But that means there's more to do and more to manage.

Hank, at 42, was the zoo's mascot, and his unexpected passing prompted a number of zoo critics and whistleblowers to charge that the zoo needs tighter management and oversight and has for years.

Some critics have said the best hope for that dimmed in September when Chattanooga contracted the zoo's management to the nonprofit Friends of the Zoo. The city paid the Friends $648,577 for the 2011 budget year and top management -- including zoo director Darde Long -- was carried over.

But with that change, a number of longtime zookeepers left to keep their city benefits and seniority or to work at other zoos.

Within weeks, animals began to die.

Hank was the seventh animal death at the zoo in a month's time, and the 10th since early November, according to zoo vet Tony Ashley. But preliminary forensic exams do not point to any clear connections.

"I can't speak to the animal husbandry at the zoo, only to medical care [and preliminary necropsies]," Ashley said Friday.

"So far it doesn't appear that any of the deaths are related," he said. "We wonder why this has happened, and we want answers. But [so far] you can't place the blame on anybody."

Probes and reviews

Groups are lining up to try, however.

PETA -- People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals -- has received a complaint about how animals are treated at the Chattanooga Zoo.

"We've heard from one whistleblower," said Debbie Leahy, PETA's director of captive animal rescue and enforcement.

With the PETA announcement, zoo spokeswoman Robin Derryberry released a statement from Friends of the Zoo Board President Gary Chazen.


* 1937: The Chattanooga zoo begins at Warner Park with two rhesus monkeys in a 4-foot by 6-foot cage.

* 1942: Collection grows to include lions, buffalo, alligators and bobcats.

* 1969: Plans are made to shift the zoo's focus to a petting zoo. "Zooville" opens with goats, sheep and other farm animals.

* 1970s: Zoo conditions deteriorate while larger zoos across the nation begin to shift toward natural habitat exhibits and conservation education.

* 1985: Public pushes for zoo to improve or close. Friends of the Zoo is formed to raise money for improvements.

* 1989: New master plan calls for an expansion to 50 acres.

* 1993: Plan is scaled down to 5 acres.

* 1998: Chattanooga Zoo receives first accreditation from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, with reaccreditations in 2003 and 2008.

* 2000: Master plan is updated to 12 acres.

* 2001: Hank gets expansive new digs when Gombe Forest chimpanzee exhibit opens.

* 2004: First section of the Himalayan Passage opens featuring red pandas.

* 2005: Cougar exhibit opens.

* 2006: Himalayan Passage is complete, adding snow leopards and Hanuman langurs.

* 2008: Opening of $4.2 million entrance complex at western boundary of Warner Park with gift shop, ticketing area, concessions pavilion and carousel expands zoo footprint to 13 acres.

* 2010: In September, Chattanooga contracts zoo management to Friends of the Zoo.

Source: Chattanooga, Chattanooga Zoo at Warner Park


* A gecko died in November

* A tortoise died in December

* A male muntjac, an Asian deer, died in mid-December

* Two marmosets died in late December

* A tortoise died in early January

* A female muntjac died the second week of January

* Two snow leopard cubs died or were stillborn the second week in January

* Hank the chimpanzee was found dead Monday

Source: Chattanooga Zoo officials

"Our board takes this situation very seriously," Chazen said in the statement. "We are currently working with appropriate entities to determine the cause of death of these animals. This has been and will continue to be our top priority and focus until all questions have been answered."

Leahy said PETA, the world's largest animal rights organization, will watch what federal zoo regulators do in coming days and weeks.

David Sacks, a spokesman with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, confirmed shortly after Hank's death that USDA had received an anonymous complaint.

On Friday, Sacks said zoo director Long, who had invited USDA to make a new inspection, told him a USDA investigator already has begun that look.

The Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which accredits both the Chattanooga Zoo and the Tennessee Aquarium, has received two requests to look into the zoo's operation, a spokesman said.

One was from a member of the public, and the other was from the zoo itself, spokesman Steve Feldman said.

"This is a proactive step by the zoo to seek an independent review," Feldman said. "It's an example of how seriously the zoo takes this."

In March, the AZA plans its midyear meeting in Chattanooga, hosted by the zoo and the Tennessee Aquarium.

dead animals

In all of 2010, the zoo lost 10 animals, said Derryberry, who also is a board member of Friends of the Zoo.

At least half were in November and December. Five more have died already in 2011.

Ashley said two tortoises and a gecko died in November, but have not been included in recent news accounts of zoo deaths.

The complaint to PETA details a number of other incidents.

Those include the deaths of two marmosets and a muntjac -- a small Asian deer -- that died after falling into a koi pond when it was locked out of its shelter for a Holiday Lights fundraising event. The muntjac was frightened by barking dogs and, in panic and disorientation, fell into the freezing pond, according to the complaint.

Another muntjac died within days, from what Ashley said was a twisted colon.

Ashley said he examined two dead snow leopard cubs shortly after their birth in early January, but could not confirm whether they were stillborn, as zoo officials have claimed, or whether they died from the cold.

Whistleblowers claimed the two cubs died after being born outside while the female snow leopard was locked outside her den. A third cub was born inside after her den was opened and so far has survived. It is gaining weight, Ashley said.

PETA concerns

PETA's Leahy criticized the zoo's lock-out events and its policy of allowing visitors to bring in dogs.

"We're very concerned about animals being locked out [of shelter while] on display. They should never be locked out, especially on bitterly cold evenings," she said. "And we are troubled by reports that people were allowed to bring their dogs into the zoo, and the dogs were stressing out some of the animals."

Leahy said she also was concerned about scheduling mistakes that have been acknowledged by zoo officials.

Whistleblowers told the Times Free Press and PETA that the marmosets, a type of monkey, were without food and water for four or five days. Zoo officials have said it was only one day.

"Whether it was one day or four days, they're dead," Leahy said.

Ashley and Mickey Myers, a veterinarian and board member -- and Ashley's boss -- said the marmosets' preliminary necropsies indicate they had a type of hepatitis virus commonly carried by mice.

Leahy said PETA has no plans to protest at the zoo, although she said that could change if conditions don't improve.

"We have higher expectations for accredited zoos," she said, referring to the Chattanooga zoo's AZA membership.

Zoo officials have said that Chattanooga is among the 10 percent of the nation's zoos that have achieved AZA accreditation.

What about Hank?

Great apes like Hank have life spans not unlike people.

In the wild, many males that have to fight to survive die around age 35, according to experts, but most average about 20 more years of life in captivity. The longest-lived chimpanzee in captivity was 65.

Hank was 42 and had lived in captivity all his life. He was 7 when he came to the Chattanooga Zoo in 1976.

His former keeper, John Urstadt, said Hank was healthy when Urstadt left the zoo in May with plans to begin his own zoo in Florida. Urstadt is one of several former employees who told the Times Free Press that the transition from city management to Friends of the Zoo oversight left the facility short of keepers with large-animal handling experience.

The zoo director praised her new staff, saying her three newest hires have more education than the former workers and two have experience with large animals.

Myers said Hank had a physical in June, performed by veterinarian researchers at the University of Tennessee. They found Hank suffered from diabetes but showed no heart problems.

Ashley said the preliminary results from Hank's necropsy show he had fluid around his heart.

"When that happens the heart can't pump," Ashley said Friday.

Ashley said three things could have caused that: cancer, heart disease and infection.

He said Hank had no indication of cancer. He deemed heart disease a maybe, though none was seen in June and nothing in the preliminary necropsy "screams" heart failure. He said only the final necropsy can determine if infection was a culprit.

Mayor Ron Littlefield said last week that he and zoo officials have known Hank was sick "for a long time."

Of the other animal deaths, the mayor indicated he is taking a wait-and-see attitude.

"The number is interesting, but I don't think we need to rush in and wrench it away from them [Friends of the Zoo]," he said.

Staff writer Cliff Hightower contributed to this story. Contact Pam Sohn at or 423-757-6346.

about Pam Sohn...

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, ...

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Why does a city our size need a zoo? This is left over from a time when wild animals were curiosities. Retire the animals to sanctuaries and close the zoo. When was the last time you visited or contributed (other than via taxes)to the zoo?

January 30, 2011 at 7:49 a.m.
jpo3136 said...

Zoos are important academic and cultural facilities. We need to support our people, and our zoo. If they have a problem, we can handle it like intelligent professionals. We have plenty of vets and biologists and people experienced with animal care in the area: we don't need to give up or berate our fellows.

I feel that the death statistics and information we see presented on the animals is incomplete. It's not rational to draw conclusions from just the report that some animals died.

With the crowding of human populations, it's no longer reasonable to believe that animals will roam in the wild. There is no more "in the wild." Look at the sharp reduction in large animal herd migrations in Africa. There will soon be little other place for these animals to go.

PETA: aren't they opposed to zoos, overall? How is their opinion reasonable or a part of intelligent discussion? They have demonstrated time and again that their interest is in the disruption of discussion and solution construction. They are not going to do anything but argue. We don't need their noise.

I disagree with the concept that just because an animal died that the zoo is somehow at fault. I think that the sidebar listing of animal deaths seems to imply that. Animals die every day. Would you expect a tortoise to live how long? Some live to be as old as a hundred; but, many die every year.

A more reasonable and rational and balanced presentation of the facts would include a comparison of the age of the animals against the common age of deaths of animals of the same species in captivity.

Are our animals surviving just as long as they would in other zoos or not? Mere death is not an indicator of a problem. It may be the natural course of things. A lot of these animals do not have a lifespan that's comparable to humans.

For example, the lifespan of a chimpanzee in the wild is only 35 to 40 years. Hank died at 42. That's not, in and of itself, a shocking age for chimpanzee death.

Marmosets in the wild live about 12 years.

We've not been told how old they were when they died; or, what their mortality rates are in the wild.

We've not, for example, been told the mortality rates for these animals in the zoo as if they were in the wild. For example, how does Hank's death at 42 compare with the chimpanzee population, worldwide? Of those animals who live to be older in zoos, how many had substantive medical care from humans from birth? Hank did not.

We need to support our people, support our zoos, give the professionals time to understand the problem, and allow for some reasonable support. From that support, we need to build durable and working solutions. Quitting and blaming does not count.

January 30, 2011 at 11:27 a.m.
jpo3136 said...

When our relationship with these animals begins after they've been abused, captured, worked in a circus or mistreated as an exotic pet, then I think we should not expect the animal to live as long a life. It's more reasonable to expect animal mortality that's closer to their natural lifespans.

If we want long-living animals, then we would probably have to pay accordingly; notice, we haven't. So, it's no surprise that our animals may die closer to their natural mortality ages.

The difference our zoos can make is in the defiance of natural mortality rates against environmental hazards. Even if our animals died from exposure to some obscure hazard, still, in the wild they would have faced many more. Daily, our zookeepers have been striving to ensure a reasonably safe and stable environment for these exotic animals.

We can't reasonably expect that every single event will be anticipated and eliminated in advance. Instead, we strive to have our zookeepers support the best executable plan for the situation. Animal death, by itself, does not mean that we haven't done that.

We need to stand by our zookeepers and our animals and find out what happened. Build the correct, durable solution.

January 30, 2011 at 11:37 a.m.
fairmon said...

If you love them let them go, if they love you they will come back. What gives people the right to incarcerate these animals in a zoo so they can go see them occasionally or pretend it is educational? Those so inclined should be able to fund the zoo with donations and an entry fee. The inability to do this means the majority doesn't agree with the need for a zoo. Today's ability to learn about and see these animals through videos and travelogues makes the educational argument very weak. I think some people would condone incarcerating humans of those ethnicity's that they and their off spring may never see. Imprisoning animals in no way shows that those so inclined care about the well being of the incarcerated animals. If they could talk would they use the quote "give me liberty or give me death"?

Payingattention makes a good point. Our socialist mayor and council had no hesitation when they further impoverished some citizens with their tax and fees increases in order to continue owning real estate and businesses that compete with those privately owned. And, so they could continue supporting the social agenda of special interest groups under the pretense of doing what is "right for us" and the city. They then upset one group we are most dependent on, the police, with a pseudo claim it would save tax payer money. Look at all the inefficiencies, over staffing, over paid entities in city government and the savings opportunities. The mayor and his staff assume most citizens are too stupid to see through their strategy intended to squash the objection to higher taxes and to punish the fire and police personnel that don't agree with their country club management practices. Or, it could be the mayor and council are too incompetent to see the waste and inefficiencies they condone.

Remember the names when it is time to vote in 2012.

January 30, 2011 at 1:19 p.m.
ChattGuy1 said...

Keep in mind that the zoo was founded nearly 75 years ago by the City of Chattanooga. Funding the zoo isn’t anything new for this community. You certainly can’t pin it on Littlefield.

Based on information in the city audit and numbers published by the zoo, over 60% of the operational budget ($1.2 million) comes from the private sector. This also does not take into account the money that has been raised privately for capital improvements (about $10 million). Whether you like it or not, the zoo isn’t going anywhere when that kind of money is being thrown around.

I agree with jpo3136 that we need to stand behind the zoo in this time of controversy. Chattanooga has a lot to be proud of and the zoo is a big part of what makes our city great.

January 30, 2011 at 2:11 p.m.
ChattGuy1 said...

HANKSFRIEND, you definitely seem passionate about your views concerning the zoo. Just curious, what do you want to see come out of all this? I'm no expert, but it seems like all this negative press is only going to hurt the zoo (and the animals) in the long run.

January 30, 2011 at 3:03 p.m.
fairmon said...

The zoo was started over 75 years ago. At that time who had a TV and the travel channel, video of wild animals in their own habitat, who had cell phones and the ability to travel beyond Chattanooga? It may remain although there was not then and even less legitimate justification now. Little field didn't start the zoo and I don't credit him with it. I do maintain he and the council have no right to allocate tax money to that and other non-essentials that are not mandated and without some liberal interpretation not allowed by city charter. I resent having money taken from me and others to support the narrow interest of a few. Publicize the ECA budget and contribution to citizens and put it on the ballot as a yes or no vote. What would the results be?

10 million in private money and 60% of the operating budget indicate it should be self sufficient as should many other tax supported activities. Why is it not privately owned and operated and paying property taxes, license and inspection fees? I would prefer an independent financial audit of city finances with the findings made public over an audit of the zoo.

The elected elite think the residents and business owners within their domain are too stupid to know what is best for them therefore, they have to require us to support things we don't value. It is as Thomas Jefferson warned of growing governments which would do so under the pretense of helping us.

January 30, 2011 at 5:21 p.m.
fairmon said...


I agree that the tea groups have the right principles and understanding of the founding fathers definition of governments role. My comment meant I don't have a high regard for those elected and their ability to bring about meaningful change in direction or bringing about anything resembling control of a run away government. I guess on the positive side they are not a party and the two parties have a hard time making them fit in any box. They have no national leader, committee or anything resembling the democrats or republicans national committees that make sure their members parrot the party lines.

I can get irate over the incompetence of our city office holders and their socialist agenda.

January 30, 2011 at 8:14 p.m.
SavartiTN said...

I visited the zoo last summer for the first time since the 1970s. I quit going then because my 6 year old daughter, in 1978 or so, witnessed a chimpanzee grab one of the children standing next to her in her school group and bite the child's finger off. Not so long after that, a chimpanzee broke free, chased a man through a parking lot, and then crippled him by biting off his calf muscles. I didn't want to ever go around that sad, pathetic place again.

A friend of mine talked me into the recent trip. While there were major improvements, I was still disheartened by the conditions that some of the animals were kept in. The serval, a very active animal, seemed to be in a small former aviary. The snow leopard...on an extremely hot day...was unable to find shade or a way to cool off. The animal seem stressed. Unfortunately for her, her cubs wouldn't survive that. Then there was the exceptionally loud train that runs right behind some of the animals pens. It was still a sad, pathetic place.

I don't know what the answers are to this problem. I think this round of animal deaths may be brought on by the transition. After all, despite what people think about them, animals get attached to, have fear of, people. And then, new people have to get used to the ways of the animals. Transitions are hard on all living things.

All in all, it doesn't seem that the current status is working for the zoo. Despite what some think about "incarcerating" animals, zoos serve a very important purpose in that they help preserve animals that are becoming endangered and extinct. But given that, they are still sad places.

January 31, 2011 at 2:24 p.m.
psohn said...

I am the reporter of the zoo stories for the Times Free Press. I would love to talk to some of you who are commenting here. Please e-mail me at or call me at 423-757-6346.

January 31, 2011 at 4:41 p.m.
zoofriend said...

In the recent reporting of the deaths at the zoo Pam Sohn has not followed the ethics policy of the Times Free press. She has been provided with proof of many facts including the qualifications of current staff members but will not present the full story and has only wanted to print sensational accusations and hear say. I have looked at the ethics policy which states that a journalist should "seek truth and report it" but Pam Sohn has ignored facts and answers from the zoo and printed only speculation.To completely ignore parts of the truth in order to make a story more exciting is not true journalism. Ignoring facts falls under the heading of fiction. She has made statements sound like fact when they are not. She stated that the zoo’s muntjac died after being scared by a barking dog and fell into freezing water. She then ended the line with the complaint stated. I am sorry but that makes it sound like it is a fact but in reality no one was around and a visitor said it looked like the animal had a seizure and nothing about a dog was ever stated. Statements are coming from people who were not present at any of the incidents she is reporting on as well as ignoring statements from the zoo staff that were present. I realize that this will not matter in the scheme of things but still needed to be said in the interest of truth. She wrote that chimpanzees have a similar life span to humans. The oldest chimp ever to live in captivity died at the age of 65 and the oldest human has been well over 100 years old. How can a reporter write an article in which statements are reported that have not been researched, even a simple search on the internet would have given her the correct information about a chimps life span. Pam’s article also made allegations that the zoo’s current staff does not have enough experience to work with the animals at the zoo. The resumes showed a huge amount of experience in the zoo field by the three new employees and Pam chose not to report this information which would have discredited parts of her earlier articles this week.If the truth is the goal then this is an important part of the story. Pam is using former employees that have not worked at the zoo in months and one source left almost a year ago. One source worked at a zoo which had to surrender its license to USDA and Pam was the reporter that wrote the story of this closing for the Chattanooga Times Free press.The same person also worked at an institution which had to surrender the animals due to illegal activities but he is being used as if he is an expert and is not speculating and passing on second and third hand information. There are many other examples of misinformation and untruths in the articles. Pam Sohn is not confirming information or attempting to get a complete story.This is very poor journalism and truly needs to be corrected.

January 31, 2011 at 6:07 p.m.
keepergyrl102 said...

Wow you know this story is juicy when the zoo staff are personally attacking the reporter!!!! WOW!!!

February 4, 2011 at 10:10 a.m.
keepergyrl102 said...

HMMMM zoofriend looks like the next 2 articles that came out right after this kinda proved that the accusations where true? So I guess Pam did follow the ethics policy huh? I guess she saw through the lies that your PR department aka (Derryberry and Dardy) had to throw at people! Oh, and btw attacking the reporter just makes you guys look even more desperate to shut this whole thing up, readers are noticing the lies and the personal attacks, you should probably quit while your so far behind and looking even more like a lying careless facility.

February 11, 2011 at 7:06 p.m.
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