Zoo promises go unfulfilled
The facility currently lacks accreditation, a director and 3 exhibits even as taxes pool $5.8M for it
Ayear after the Honolulu Zoo suffered an embarrassing loss of accreditation from the Association of Zoos & Aquariums, three zoo exhibits are shuttered and the facility lacks a permanent director. Mayor Kirk Caldwell and the city’s Department of Enterprise Services, which runs the zoo, and the former zoo director, Baird Fleming, promised to regain AZA accreditation, which certifies that facilities
are offering the gold standard of animal management and care. City leaders pushed for a dedicated zoo fund to address AZA concerns that “financial shortcomings and instability” had resulted in “three recurring five-year AZA accreditation cycles of underachievement.”
In November, taxpayers approved a charter amendment dedicating half of one percent of real property taxes to the zoo, which by July is projected to generate $5.8 million of the city’s requested $7.8 million zoo operating budget. City and zoo proponents have touted that fund’s establishment as a major step toward regaining accreditation.
But Fleming resigned in November, and the city began looking for his permanent replacement only last Sunday. Critics are pointing to the six-month delay in searching for the zoo’s sixth director in seven years, last weekend’s chimpanzee escape, and holdups in the construction and opening of multimillion-dollar projects like the hippo exhibit and the reptile house as portents of further accreditation woes.
“They couldn’t even consider getting reaccredited by AZA until they have a director on board,” said Cathy Goeggel, Animal Rights Hawaii president, who is a former member of the nonprofit Honolulu Zoo Society, the zoo’s fundraising and programming arm. “It’s crazy to think they could go ahead and meet all those requirements without one. It’s very, very important if they are going to have a zoo to get accreditation. It would give them more stature in the community and it ensures that a third party is watching out for the animals.” Department of Enterprise Services Deputy Director Tracy Kubota said the zoo has been operating under the stewardship of Interim Zoo Director Bill Balfour and Assistant Zoo Director Linda Santos. Kubota said the lag in advertising Fleming’s position happened because the city “took the time to review the program description for the zoo director and reached out to staff and stakeholders to discuss the recruitment prior to posting the announcement.”
The zoo was eligible to reapply for accreditation March 1, but Kubota anticipates that it won’t reapply until the fall of 2019.
The “zoo is striving to maintain AZA standards for animal welfare while continuing to address deferred maintenance and upkeep of exhibits and facilities. (The) zoo is also moving forward with plans to modernize exhibits in the zoo in partnership with the Honolulu Zoo Society,” she said.
A visit to the 42-acre zoo on Tuesday did show improvement since the facility lost accreditation on March 31, 2016. Grounds were better kept, volunteers were conducting educational programs, and animal exhibits were clean. Unlike last year, there were no obvious cracks in glass enclosures, and bathrooms were clean and stocked with toilet paper and soap.
BUT THE CHIMPANZEE exhibit was still closed following Sunday’s attempted escape. City spokesman Andrew Pereira said in a statement that a chimpanzee climbed onto the top of the wall separating his exhibit and the aviary exhibit. His 10-minute escape was designated as a “code red,” and if he had gone into a public area personnel were instructed to shoot to kill. “These escapes could have been very, very serious,” Goeggel said. “These animals are very strong.” The city has been grappling with problems at the chimpanzee exhibit for several years. Kubota said it made modifications to address a previous escape and to eliminate rust in the holding area. The zoo was faulted by USDA inspectors in 2014 and 2015 for two previous chimpanzee escapes and for rusty enclosures, which inspectors said “compromise the integrity of structures.”
“The zoo is working with contractors and consultants to address the repairs and improvements to the chimp exhibit, including rock work and installing additional hot wire,” Kubota said. “Once the work is done, the chimps will be allowed to enter the exhibit area. They are currently in the back holding area which includes their day pen.”
The reptile and amphibian complex, which shut down in 2014 for improvements, also is closed despite Fleming’s assurances that it would reopen in the fall of 2016.
“The construction portion of the reptile and amphibian complex is wrapping up. The exhibits are in the process of being installed, as well as landscaping and keeper work space,” Kubota said.
The hippo viewing area has been closed since 2014, when the city ordered the contractor to stop work following the unexpected death of one of the two endangered hippos. A veterinarian could not determine the cause of Rosey’s death, but the necropsy report said “environmental stress could have contributed.” The surviving hippo has not returned to the exhibit and remains temporarily housed in the zoo’s old elephant enclosure.
Jonell Steed, a visitor from Seattle, said Tuesday that she and her family, husband Carie Steed and 10-monthold daughter Adalyn, enjoyed their zoo visit. “We try to take her to a zoo everywhere we visit. She had a wonderful time today,” Steed said. “Our only complaint was that a few of the exhibits weren’t open and we were really hoping to see the hippos.”
Fleming said last year that the hippo exhibit would reopen by summer 2016, but Kubota said workers are still making modifications to the pool, adding aggregate to the landing area and making repairs to the viewing glass.
Trevor Ozawa, who formed a zoo working group nearly two years ago, said the Department of Enterprise Services continues to exhibit a “lack of urgency” when it comes to filling the zoo’s top position or operations or maintenance.
“The big takeaway here is that nothing has changed. The direction of the zoo has been all over the place and continues to be all over the place. Without a true change in direction, an immediate new director, you won’t see improvements or any accreditation,” Ozawa said. “Right
now the bar is very low. Zoo operations are lacking.” Ozawa said the department has taken a long time to advertise for Fleming’s replacement. The city job posting offers a salary range of $102,192 to $170,100 annually, and closes on June 5. That short recruitment period has led Ozawa to speculate that the city may “already know who they want or it could be a closeddoor deal.”
Ozawa told the Enterprise Services Department it should consider including a third-party zoo director from an AZA-accredited facility as part of the decision-making process for a new director. He said he’s disappointed that the department hasn’t listened. “It’s not just a political appointment. If we get the right zoo director, they
should continue working at the city longer than the mayor. But if we continue to do the exact same things we are doing, we can look forward to a revolving door,” he said.
Fleming’s departure followed that of Ken Redman, Manuel Mollinedo, Jeffrey Mahon and Jeff Wilkinson. In the past seven years, there have been five zoo directors, five directors of Enterprise Services and four executive directors of the Honolulu Zoo Society, the zoo’s nonprofit arm.
City funds have been budgeted to begin planning and designing a two-story parking structure that could provide more funding and better access to the zoo, but Ozawa said the idea hasn’t proceeded. He said the zoo needs “a clear and bold change in direction.”
The big takeaway here is that nothing has changed. The direction of the zoo has been all over the place and continues to be all over the place. Without a true change in direction, an immediate new director, you won’t see improvements or any accreditation. Right now the bar is very low. Zoo operations are lacking.” Trevor Ozawa City councilman, who formed a zoo working group nearly two years ago
At top, a sign points to the Honolulu Zoo’s chimpanzee exhibit, closed since a chimp managed to escape last Sunday, albeit into a secured area. Above, Carie Steed and his 10-month-old daughter, visitors from Washington state, enjoy the penguin exhibit. At left, visitors walk past the hippo exhibit, closed since 2014.
It’s been just over a year since the Honolulu Zoo lost its accreditation, in part because of ongoing funding problems.
Violet, a female orangutan, is kept separate from Rusti, the male orangutan.