20160501_ZooMapA1 by Honolulu Star-Advertiser
When Honolulu Zoo visitors peer through a fence at what should be a new reptile and amphibian complex, they see a dirt lot full of rebar and empty machinery.
At the hippo viewing area, with its green water and flooded walkway, they find a sign saying the exhibit is temporarily closed. It has been closed since 2014, following the unexpected death of one of the two endangered hippos.
The 42-acre zoo is a tangle of construction, closed exhibits, broken pavement, dirty bathrooms, overgrown landscaping and dog-eared signage.
Observers say that’s because years of internal feuding, political wrangling and unstable operations have taken their toll. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums recently pulled the zoo’s accreditation, which could result in the loss of some animals and hamper access to grant money. AZA inspectors said safety is compromised because of inadequate staffing — the zoo was down 15 out of 75 full-time positions going into the inspection, and employees missed 470 days of work in 2014 alone due to on-the-job accidents.
“The zoo is much politicized and seems to be a victim of inconsistent leadership at all levels,” inspectors said in their report. They also cited an “inadequate rallying of resources and efforts in an attempt to look good for each AZA inspection.”
In addition, they noted “critical, widespread casual approach to safety through-out the organization, creating the potential for serious injury. From non-functioning animal doors to poor exhibit access, staff is put in situations that compromise safety.”
The committee said it “was extremely concerned about the overall safety of the program for elephants,” which are the flagship animals for most zoos. They called the zoo’s elephant management protocol “outdated and unacceptable,” and said “a major concern of the inspection is that there is not sufficient potable drinking water for the elephants on exhibit.” An entry in the elephant profiles submitted by the zoo indicated both of the elephants were being tested for lead after probably consuming a battery.
“There is no evidence that anyone on staff had a true understanding of the elephant standards,” inspectors said.
Inspectors also criticized the zoo for failing to establish staff safety protocol for the Komodo dragon, which has a toxic bite.
After the AZA verdict was announced in March, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser obtained the zoo’s current and past accreditation applications and follow-up reports, U.S. Department of Agriculture inspections, and necropsies of deceased animals. In addition to reviewing thousands of pages of documents, the newspaper interviewed dozens of people and visited the zoo on four separate days over two weeks to observe conditions.
The city issued a news release March 22 stating that “maintenance and animal care did not factor into the decision to deny reaccreditation.”
Honolulu Zoo Director Baird Fleming said the zoo has already successfully addressed the animal care and facility concerns that came out of the inspection. He said the report is a snapshot in time, reflecting conditions during the Nov. 15-18 visit.
“They really think our staff is doing a great job. I think our staff is doing a great job,” Fleming said during an April 21 interview. He indicated the zoo is on track to regain accreditation, but said the coming challenge will be proving to AZA that the zoo has stable leadership, consistent financial support and productive collaboration between its governing authorities.
In a letter announcing the decision, the accreditation commission said, “the animal collection at the Honolulu Zoo is being well cared for by a staff of very dedicated professionals,” but financial shortcomings and instability “have resulted in three recurring five-year AZA accreditation cycles of underachievement.”
Fleming said the organization “wants something that says the (zoo’s) budget can’t be touched and is protected. It’s important to them and us, because we have living things,” he said.
The Honolulu Zoo is run by the city’s Department of Enterprise Services. The zoo director also works closely with the nonprofit support organization, the Honolulu Zoo Society. In the past six years, there have been five zoo directors, five directors of Enterprise Services and three executive directors of the Zoo Society. Jennifer Barrett, interim Zoo Society executive director, is expected to be replaced by summer.
“How can you run anything when you have management turnover at that rate? There’s obviously something very wrong,” said Linda Wong, vice chairwoman of Neighborhood Board No. 5, which includes Diamond Head, Kapahulu and St. Louis.
Negotiations on a new contract delineating the responsibilities of the zoo, the Zoo Society and the city should conclude in September. AZA wants to see greater financial input from the Zoo Society. During the past five years, Zoo Society contributions to the zoo have averaged just 5 percent of the facility’s operating budget.
Fleming said the zoo will complete two large construction projects this year: the reptile exhibit, which has been closed since 2014, and the hippo exhibit. The city ordered the contractor to stop work on the hippo exhibit in July 2014, after the sudden death of Rosey, one of the hippos. It took the city several months to retrofit the old elephant enclosure so the remaining hippo, Louise, could be moved there and the contractor could resume work. A veterinarian could not determine the cause of Rosey’s death, but said environmental stress could have contributed.
“Because we didn’t know, we didn’t want to rule that out. But we also wanted to make sure that we did the best that we could for Louise,” Fleming said.
The city spent more than $1 million from 2008 to 2011 to update signage and graphics throughout the zoo. However, new permanent graphics were only completed for the African savanna area. Former zoo director Manuel Mollinedo said the zoo paid about $20,000 for a set of temporary graphics to cover the rest of the campus for an AZA inspection. They were designed to last about two years, but are still in use.
Shopping center kiosks also are scattered throughout the zoo. They contain animal and conservation information printed on dog-eared laminated sheets of copy paper, secured with tape and covered with dust. The kiosks have been closed for cleaning for about two weeks, following questions from the Star-Advertiser.
“The kiosks are a little lowbrow,” said City Councilman Trevor Ozawa, who represents Waikiki and serves as the chairman of the Kapiolani Park Trustees. “They are trying to do what they can with what they have, but that’s embarrassing.”
The city’s fiscal year 2017 budget, which is still in negotiation, proposes to raise the zoo’s operating budget to $6.81 million from the prior year’s $6.04 million. The city also has pledged to add funding to bring the zoo’s full-time staff count to 86. Fleming said a new educational specialist will maintain signage and develop uniform graphics.
The city’s capital improvements request reflects a $1.5 million increase to address AZA concerns like rust mitigation, barn roof improvements and office trailers, said Enterprise Services Director Guy Kaulukukui.
But former Department of Enterprise Services Director Sidney Quintal, who retired in 2011, said it’s going to take more than new staff members and money to fix the crisis. Historically, philosophical differences have existed over fundraisers and programs, he said. The funding split between the city and its Zoo Society also drives conflict, he added.
“Each side had their own constraints, which made it difficult to get everyone on the same page,” said Ted Otaguro, who was the Zoo Society’s executive director from 2011 until 2015. “We weren’t able to be as nimble as we needed to propel business forward.”
Otaguro said fundraising efforts were hampered when the city put a moratorium on the society’s evening programs, like Snooze at the Zoo and after-hour tours. The city also decided that it would no longer allow the Zoo Society to obtain a liquor license to run specialty events like Zoofari.
Fleming said society programs have been stopped intermittently to address safety issues. “We would restart, and something else would happen, and we’d have to refocus,” he said.
Decision makers also must weigh proposed solutions such as implementing public/private partnerships or revenue-generating ideas like adding a paid parking structure or expanding sponsorships. The Kapiolani Park Trust requires that the land under the zoo be used solely for public park and recreational purposes.
“It’s a park first and then a zoo. The trust requires that we ask if it serves a public purpose of keeping the park free and open, or does it merely fund an attraction that otherwise wouldn’t make it?” said Alethea Rebman, president of the Kapiolani Park Preservation Society.
The zoo was started informally after the city began managing the park in 1914. In 1947, a master plan designated a portion of the park as the Honolulu Zoo. As of last year, it was home to about 900 animals.
Rebman said her group would oppose restructuring the city’s operating agreement with the Zoo Society to create more of a public/private partnership. It doesn’t support adding a three-story parking structure as proposed by City Council members Ozawa and Ann Kobayashi. Likewise, the organization is concerned about the potential for park commercialization under a bill that would allow the Zoo Society to forge sponsorship agreements with private entities.
Rebman said the Kapiolani Park Preservation Society wants the zoo to succeed and is willing to work with the city and the Zoo Society to create a long-term plan that does not violate the terms of the trust. But the City Council has not been receptive, she said.
“They created a zoo task force and didn’t even invite us to be on it, ” Rebman said.
Rebman said a charter amendment proposed by City Council Chairman Ernie Martin has more merit. He wants voters to consider establishing a special zoo operations fund that would receive 0.75 percent of all yearly general fund revenues, which would raise an estimated $9.75 million annually. Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s administration supports the fund, but wants 0.5 percent of general fund revenues annually, which would lower the estimated collection to $6.5 million.
Martin said the measure would provide dedicated funding for the zoo regardless of who is in office. The implications of having a zoo director beholden to the politics of the hiring administration also should be examined, he added.
“Zoo directors are appointees of the administration so they never say they need more money than the mayor has proposed,” Martin said. “They always say that they can live within the means provided. Obviously, in this case, they couldn’t.”
CORRECTION: As chairman of the the Honolulu City Council’s Executive Matters and Legal Affairs Committee, Councilman Trevor Ozawa also serves as the chairman of the Kapiolani Park Trustees. An earlier version of this story and a page A1 story Sunday said Councilman Ernie Martin, as chair of the City Council, serves as chairman of the Kapiolani Park Trustees.
20160501 Zoo Timeline by Honolulu Star-Advertiser