Friday, June 18, 2010

Report Blasts Calgary Zoo: Vindicates Zoocheck

Yesterday the Calgary Zoo held a media conference to release the findings of a joint review of their facility conducted by members of the Canadian Association of Zoos and Aquariums and the US-based Association of Zoos and Aquariums. The review was initiated by embattled Calgary Zoo CEO Clement Lanthier who promised the process would be transparent and the results made public.

Lanthier called the review after years of accidents, mishaps and blunders at the zoo, stretching back to the start of his predecessor’s tenure as CEO. While Lanthier and zoo management repeatedly said the voluminous number of incidents were all unfortunate, usually unpreventable, accidents that were in no way connected to each other, Zoocheck consistently said otherwise. After more than 25 years of zoo campaigns, we knew there were systemic problems at the zoo and that an independent review was required.

For nearly five years Zoocheck has been campaigning to draw attention to the zoo and to change the Calgary Zoo’s focus from an entertainment business model to one that is focused on the animals themselves. We believe the zoo lost its way, but that under the direction of former CEO Peter Karsten the zoo was moving in the right direction, doing at least some of things the things that zoos should do. For example, Karsten was moving away from some of the more problematic animals, such as polar bears, and focusing efforts instead on animals that could be more easily accommodated in Calgary. He was also pushing involvement in legitimate conservation initiatives.

But everything changed when Karsten retired and money-man Alex Graham replaced him. It seemed clear when Graham pushed the $30 million Destination Africa project, an abominable complex of artificial exhibits in which four gorillas died in just one year, that the zoo had changed. Instead of intelligently pushing forward with a facility that placed animals as its highest priority, it became focused on money and attractions. It became a business, the animals started to die and the zoo’s reputation eroded year after year.

When current CEO Clement Lathier took over, after a hasty departure by Graham, it was business as usual. The problems got worse. Eventually, there were so many that at least a few of the more astute Calgarians started to ask what was going on in their zoo.

The whole process was facilitated by a city council that blindly accepted whatever the zoo said and defended them against their critics (i.e., Zoocheck). There was a culture of arrogance and denial and the problems at the zoo got worse. After each mishap, the zoo said they knew what they doing and that everything was fine. Well, things weren’t fine and the scathing review report by the Calgary Zoo’s own peers show that things are even worse than anyone thought.

The report mentions an unusually high death rate (higher than comparable facilities), poor collection planning, inadequate staff training, poor communcation, as well as inadequate animal care procedures, security and infrastructure maintenance. It also says the zoo was focused on acquiring attraction animals that it didn’t have the expertise to care for and that enhancing the visitor experience was often accomplished to the detriment of the animals.

The zoo sat on the review report for quite some time, presumably so they could come up with an action plan for change that, my guess is, they hoped would mitigate some of the damage they knew would be caused when the report finally came out.

During that time, career staff member Cathy Gavalier resigned her post, something the zoo is now latching on to as a sign of change.

At their media conference yesterday, the zoo attempted to re-frame at least a few of the items in the review report, dispute or downplay several of the statistics and suggest that some of the problems are associated with staff structure and City of Calgary staff that have been assigned to the zoo. I guess if I were in their shoes, I’d do the same.

While Zoocheck believes the terms of reference for the report were too narrow, we’re nevertheless pleased with its content. It vindicates everything Zoocheck has been saying for years. We believe that if the zoo follows through with every point in their action plan, then at least some aspects of the zoo will improve, but we don’t think it’s enough.

Ultimately, as the senior staff person at the Calgary Zoo the responsibility for its culture, practices, missteps and mistakes fall at the feet of the CEO. For that reason, we believe Clement Lanthier should resign his post.

Further, with so many serious systemic problems uncovered, the Canadian and American zoo associations should suspend Calgary Zoo’s accreditation until every one of them is addressed.

Finally, the Calgary Zoo should abandon its costly, nonsensical plan to acquire Giant Pandas, another manifestation of their focus on attractions and box-office animals. If they’re serious about the future, they will.

So, are things now changed at the Calgary Zoo? Are they a renewed institution looking forward or are they just saying what they have to say to get through this latest debacle? I guess time will tell.

Rob Laidlaw
Zoocheck Canada