Bond projects may make animals' lives better with improved medical treatment, exhibits

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO JONATHAN HOUSE - One of the Oegon Zoo elephants eats from a new feeder in an expanded of their habitat last week.Metro is reorganizing the medical services at the Oregon Zoo following a series of highly publicized animal illnesses and deaths.

The regional government that operates the zoo is creating a hospital manager position at the Veterinary Medical Center. It is also contracting with three additional outside veterinarians, doubling the number of on-call vets. And it has invited a team from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the organization that certifies the hospital, to visit, review staffing levels and make recommendations for improvements in July.

Metro officials are not saying the changes would have prevented the illnesses and deaths. They include stubborn cases of tuberculosis in two of the zoo’s elephants, the January death of a Sumatran orangutan following two surgeries, and deaths of six young tamarin monkeys that had just been delivered to the zoo on May 22, which are still under investigation.

But Metro officials say the changes demonstrate the agency is responsive to the medical needs of the animals at the zoo.

“Animal welfare is the top priority of Metro and everyone who works at the zoo,” says Metro spokesman Jim Middaugh.

In fact, the center itself is an attempt to better address the zoo animals’ medical needs. It was the first major project built at the zoo with funds from a $125 million bond measure approved by Metro voters in 2008. The $9.15 million state-of-the-art facility includes such advanced features as a climate-controlled intensive care unit, separate holding facilities for different kinds of animals at the zoo with their own air systems. It replaced a much smaller and out-of-date facility.

Until now, administrative duties at the Veterinary Medical Center have been handled by the managing veterinarian, who also is involved in many of the medical procedures, including examinations and surgeries. The new manager will oversee the center operations and provide management, documentation and communication support.

“The objective is to free up the vets to do what they do best, and that is tend to the animals,” says Middaugh.

The managing veterinarian position was most recently filled by Mitch Finnegan, who was fired on May 5, following an independent investigation into the death of Kutai, the orangutan. Zoo Director Kim Smith was also fired after the investigation.

Metro officials say Finnegan and Smith were not fired because Kutai died, but because the investigation revealed they did not fully document and report preventable problems during the surgeries that may have caused or contributed to the orangutan’s death.

“For us to be able to provide the best possible care, we must be able to learn from what goes right and what goes wrong,” says Middaugh.

Finnegan’s duties are being handled by other zoo veterinarians. Smith has been replaced on an interim basis by Teri

Dresler, Metro’s general manager of visitor venues, which oversees the zoo. Middaugh says both positions will be filled as soon as possible.

Elephant habitat

Proposed changes are not likely to silence critics of Metro’s management of the zoo. They include zoo staff upset at Finnegan’s firings and animal rights activists who have mounted a campaign to free the zoo’s elephants.

The controversy over the illnesses and deaths is distracting from the significant changes that have occurred and are taking place at the zoo because of the bond measure. The hospital is just one of several projects that have already been completed. Others include a new water-filtration system for the penguins and a new $2.3 million Condors of the Columbia exhibit that opened on May 24.

The largest project, a major expansion of the elephant habitat, is still underway. Earthmoving equipment is changing the landscape at much of the zoo for the project.

When completed, the new Elephant Lands exhibit will increase the space available to the elephants from around one acre to approximately six acres, add a pool large enough for even the biggest elephants to submerge, replace the small indoor structure with a much larger one and a separate viewing building for visitors. It will also provide an advanced sand-based surface throughout the outdoor area that will be better for the elephant’s feet, a longtime problem at the zoo.

The $57 million project is scheduled to open in the fall of 2015. Remaining projects include the rerouting of rails for the Zoo Train and constructing a new Education Center. Much of the infrastructure at the zoo is also being upgraded with the bond money, including the construction of new stormwater management systems and a new service road.

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO JONATHAN HOUSE - Metro Deputy Chief Operation Officer Scott Robinson explains the features of one of the holding facilities for different zoo animals in the two-year-old Veterinary Medical Center.

Protest votes

Despite the negative news stories and efforts of animals rights activists, there is little sign the controversies have had much effect on the popularity of the zoo. On a sunny day last week, practically every space in the zoo parking lot was full by mid-morning. School buses delivered hundreds of students and parent chaperones for end-of-the-school-year field trips. Parents and children jammed walkways and open spaces inside the zoo, with the elephants drawing large crowds as they explored a new area called Encounter Habitat adjacent to the zoo concert lawn.

Nor is there any sign of a significant political backlash against Metro. President Tom Hughes easily won re-election in the May 20 primary election with 80 percent of the vote. Of the three Metro Council members up for re-election, he was the only one to even draw an opponent.

Animal rights activists urged voters to write in Packy, the 52-year-old elephant at the zoo who has tuberculosis, as a protest vote in the three Metro Council races. The protest was ineffective, however. None of the write-in votes amounted to more than 2 percent in any of the races.

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