COLUMBUS, Ohio — The Columbus Zoo and Aquarium had a bear of a year.
It started Jan. 1, the primary day of well-known zookeeper Jack Hanna’s retirement after 42 years because the beloved superstar director-turned-ambassador of the nation’s second-largest zoo.
As if the khaki-wearing “Jungle Jack” have been the life’s breath of the establishment that his upbeat animal-loving persona and plenty of TV appearances made well-known, the zoo appeared to deflate from there.
In March, information of a monetary scandal broke. Prime executives resigned. Investigations have been launched. Mea culpas have been issued.
The following week, the zoo’s beloved 29-year-old bonobo Unga died, and a 4-year-old cheetah injured a zookeeper.
Then in April, simply as a streaming worldwide TV channel named for him was launching, a damning animal rights documentary alleging Hanna had ties to the massive cat commerce premiered in California. A day later, in timing they mentioned was unrelated, Hanna’s household introduced he had dementia and would retire from public life.
In October, citing the monetary and animal rights revelations, a fee of the revered Affiliation of Zoos and Aquariums stripped the Columbus Zoo of its most important accreditation. Zoo officers filed an intent to attraction final week.
“It’s been a tough year for the Columbus Zoo, yes,” mentioned affiliation president Dan Ashe, whereas including that the zoo’s roughly 2 million guests a year can nonetheless be assured the power’s 10,000 animals are properly cared for.
Ashe mentioned bringing in Tom Schmid, who presently heads the Texas State Aquarium, because the zoo’s new chief bodes properly: “He’s going to bring the Columbus Zoo roaring back.”
Schmid, 56, begins his new job Dec. 6 as president and CEO of the zoo and its associated companies, together with The Wilds safari park and conservation middle and Zoombezi Bay water park.
Keith Shumate, chair of the zoo’s board, referred to as Schmid “extraordinarily sensible, moral and obsessed with zoos and wildlife conservation.”
“We can’t change what happened in the past, but we’ve done a lot to admit those wrongs, to apologize and to address our shortcomings,” said zoo spokesperson Nicolle Gomez Racey. “The people who took liberties in their power are gone, and the people who are cleaning up the mess in the room, under new leadership, we’re moving forward. That’s the only thing you can do.”
Interim CEO Jerry Borin has overseen zoo enterprise since then-CEO Tom Stalf and his chief monetary officer, Greg Bell, resigned in March after a Columbus Dispatch investigation discovered they allowed family to dwell in homes owned or managed by the zoo and sought tickets for members of the family to attend leisure occasions.
The findings have been confirmed in subsequent opinions, together with a forensic evaluation that discovered monetary abuses by Stalf, Bell and two different former executives price the zoo greater than $630,000. Investigations by Ohio’s state auditor and lawyer normal are nonetheless underway, their spokespeople mentioned.
The spending abuse was a very painful blow after the pandemic-related monetary hardship of 2020.
Sometimes, Columbus Zoo is open 363 days a year. Greater than half its earned income comes from admissions and different gross sales, reminiscent of meals and present objects. But, that year, it was closed for weeks, in the end sustaining $20 million in operational losses. Twenty-nine full- and part-time workers have been furloughed, and 33 non-animal care positions throughout the zoo and The Wilds have been eradicated.
But much more wrenching have been the accusations leveled within the documentary “The Conservation Game,” which premiered at the Santa Barbara Worldwide Movie Pageant on April 6.
The movie tied the zoo and Hanna to the massive cat commerce, exhibiting that some tiger, lion and snow leopard cubs that had been Hanna’s fuzzy and cute companions on TV neither got here from nor returned to the zoo. In lots of instances, they have been offered by yard breeders and unaccredited roadside zoos and disappeared into personal arms after these appearances.
As publicity across the movie grew, Hanna’s family mentioned they hadn’t seen it and couldn’t touch upon the claims. “What we can say emphatically is that he worked his entire career to better the animal world,” the household mentioned in an announcement.
Ashe mentioned the movie’s revelations, coupled along with his affiliation’s personal rising file on the zoo’s Animal Packages division, weighed closely within the determination to tug Columbus’ accreditation.
“They were, and have been for some time, dealing with non-AZA members, and pretty clearly not disclosing those transfers,” Ashe mentioned. “Those are very serious issues within our accreditation process.”
Filmmaker Michael Webber mentioned the zoo and its accreditors took his documentary’s allegations critically.
Over the summer time, the zoo acknowledged the majority of the movie’s revelations and apologized. It revised insurance policies and reporting buildings for acquisition and disposition of ambassador animals within the Animal Packages division. A longtime vp of animal packages retired.
“We made some mistakes. There’s no doubt about it,” Shumate instructed the Dispatch.
Borin additionally reversed the zoo’s earlier opposition — which the movie alleged had been spearheaded by Hanna — to The Large Cat Public Security Act. He introduced zoo assist in April for the federal laws prohibiting personal possession of massive cats as pets and banning cub-petting venues. Racey mentioned the reversal adopted necessary revisions to the invoice, which stays pending in Washington.
Webber mentioned he is giving the zoo a second probability due to its sturdy response to the movie, and he hopes the general public will, too.
“I really feel superb in regards to the outlook each for the Columbus Zoo and for the animals that we have seen exploited for many years,” he said. “Albeit after a very painful year, things are going to be better.”
Ashe mentioned the year’s disclosures even have prompted soul-searching inside the Affiliation of Zoos and Aquariums, the place the Columbus Zoo has lengthy been a flagship establishment and Hanna a famous person.
“Our members live on their reputation for excellent care of animals, so whenever we see something like Columbus, which, quite frankly, we should have caught that earlier, it’s an opportunity for reflection and improvement,” he said. “That’s the silver lining in all of this. I think Columbus will be better as a zoological facility, and we’ll be better as an accrediting body, as well.”