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Thursday, Nov. 18, 2010 03:32 pm

It’s a zoo out here

Morale and maintenance decline at Henson Robinson Zoo. Escape plan is in the works.


African penguins, also known as black-footed penguins, are a favorite at Henson Robinson Zoo. Other highlights at Springfield's zoo are, top to bottom, Asiatic black bears and red wolves. The African-crested porcupine is housed in the zoo's red barn.

When Rainier, a wolverine born last spring, sees a visitor to Henson Robinson Zoo rounding the corner to see her, she scampers to the front of her exhibit, ready to follow the new face from one end to the other before darting back to track the next.

The lively Rainier, one of the creatures that makes a winter trip to the zoo worthwhile, is bigger and more huggable-looking than the ferrets that belong in her biological family. Her exhibit, funded primarily by the Springfield Zoological Society, hosts a waterfall at the back, twisted tree stumps up front and sculpted cliffs throughout. Rainier’s surroundings look pleasant and comfortable.

A few dozen feet down the pathway, though, is a murky pond in need of dredging and an old exhibit so fortified with cold concrete that a new prison seems a better fit for the playful otters, Tyler and Harriet, who live there. Besides a few aging exhibits, the zoo hosts deteriorating fences, a mangled bridge and leaves – mostly but not all freshly fallen – that cake up against any surface where guests haven’t stepped.

Such are the observations of at least one zoo volunteer, Larry Estep, who this past spring became a docent, a volunteer with additional training that allows him to handle the animals. The Springfield Park District and zoo staff, from top to bottom, have let the place go, Estep says. He adds that some of the problems became more apparent after the zoo last spring cut its full-time staff by nearly half as its solution to park district budget cuts. “The quality of the facility has gone down considerably since the layoffs,” he says. “With only one maintenance person, it became immediately obvious that they were fighting a losing battle.”

Since Estep took his concerns to Springfield Park District administrators, who are the ultimate overseers of the zoo, things have changed some, but until recently zookeepers never locked the holding building (where the spare alligators are kept), zoo administrators never required them to do so, and the maintenance crew just couldn’t keep up with larger tasks including tree trimming and fence repair.

Behind the scenes, morale among zoo staff members is low, but, then again, about half of the zoo’s full-time staff members, many of them long-term employees, were laid off in April. Many of them were rehired to do the same work but as part-time seasonal employees with fewer hours, no benefits and about one-third less pay. Still, laid-off zookeepers complain that internal politics have always been an issue, and administrators themselves admit communication has been lacking for years.

Gombo, a white handed gibbon, hangs out in his enclosure.

Boiling point

Property tax revenues for the Springfield Park District this year are about $120,000 lower than last year, part of the reason the park district chose to change its budgeting policies to provide a more accurate picture of what it costs to run each of its facilities and departments, including Henson Robinson Zoo. Until this year, the park district’s administrative budget shouldered the burden of each park’s utility and health insurance costs. This year, the park district charged individual facilities for such costs.

For the zoo, the policy shift meant squeezing nearly $140,000 of new expenses into its budget, which last year stood at about $711,000. This year, the park district approved for the zoo a $700,500 budget, a little more than $10,000 less than last year, despite the additional costs.

“Layoffs were the last thing we wanted to do,” says zoo director Talon Thornton, adding that most other line items took hits as well. He highlights the fact that salaries, before the layoffs, made up about $549,000 of the zoo’s $711,000 budget in fiscal year 2009-2010. With the layoffs, salaries will cost the zoo about $413,000, for a savings of about $136,000.

The zoo requires at least four zookeepers every day to ensure that the animals receive the proper care. To meet that need, while also adjusting to the new budget situation, the zoo kept three of its seven zookeepers as full-time staff members. The remaining four zookeepers, all of whom have college degrees related to zoology, were offered part-time seasonal positions in which they take up to four unpaid months off of work and receive no benefits but still perform the same duties when they are at the zoo.

Three zookeepers accepted the part-time jobs while one quit. The zoo also hired two new part-time zookeepers to maintain appropriate daily staffing levels. The three-person full-time maintenance crew also took a hit. The park district transferred two zoo maintenance workers to Southwind Park, leaving only one behind at the zoo, which hired another part-time seasonal maintenance worker to help out.

“We’re a small staff, so anything like that can be pretty devastating and difficult to figure out how to wiggle through and get through it,” says Jackie Peeler, the zoo’s assistant director and curator, acknowledging that morale is at an all-time low.

Megan Madura, who started working at Henson Robinson Zoo in 1996 and was the laid-off zookeeper with the most seniority, says morale has never been great. “We don’t get information, let alone say our opinions. I think from their point of view they have involved us, but they haven’t,” Madura says of the four zoo administrators, including Peeler and Thornton.

An 8-year zookeeper at Henson Robinson Zoo and one of the staff members to get laid off this spring, Cindy Wheatley feeds Jasper, one of the donkeys in the zoo's barnyard.

Now, after unexpectedly losing her benefits and about one-third of her $32,000 salary, she’s asking more and more questions, including why administrators chose to make the cuts they did.

Four administrators at the zoo kept their jobs, but their salaries – ranging from about $33,000 to about $59,000, and totaling about $174,000 – were held flat from the previous year. Madura, as well as volunteer Estep who became friends with Madura, says the zoo has too many administrators, in light of the recent layoffs, but Thornton says two administrative positions were already cut in the last several years.

The union representing Madura and her fellow zookeepers, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 2050, blames the park district for shifting resources to new parks instead of working to maintain old parks. “There’s no way we can keep up with the work,” says Brian Schroeder, AFSCME Local 2050 president. “They’re laying off 27 of our people [throughout the park district] and expanding with Southwind Park. It doesn’t make any sense.”

Schroeder has filed two labor grievances involving the zoo, both charging that the administration is weakening the union and avoiding paying overtime by using non-union workers to perform his members’ jobs. The first grievance was a response to a volunteer day at the zoo, which Estep says was necessary to keep leaves from overtaking the park. The second grievance complains that zoo director Thornton, a non-union employee, was performing maintenance work that should have been addressed by a union maintenance worker.

When asked about the second grievance, Thornton said he wasn’t aware one had been filed but did admit that he has performed duties usually delegated to maintenance staff, such as mopping and cleaning the restrooms, when the remaining full-time worker has been out sick. “We went from three maintenance staff to one. He needed help. … Stuff had to get done,” Thornton says.

Volunteers always have been essential for raising funds for the zoo’s capital improvements. The Springfield Zoological Society has been the major benefactor behind every new or upgraded exhibit at Henson Robinson Zoo, at least in the last decade. In the past, it has collected funds through zoo memberships and admissions to special zoo events, including Zoolie Ghoulie. This year, however, the zoo itself took control of those proceeds in order to use them to pay for its operations, forcing the zoo society to find new ways to raise funds for long-term capital projects.

“In my group, there were individuals who were unhappy [with the changes]. I think all of us were,” zoo society president Dave Ploskonka says. “But we moved past it very quickly and got to the point that we were just going to find additional sources of revenue, and I really feel that by next year we will have made up for those with the new events we’ve added.” The society this year took over and expanded the food operations at Zoolie Ghoulie and has added a pancake breakfast to its fundraising repertoire. “Ultimately our goal is to help the zoo succeed and prosper. Whether those funds from those events are coming to us or going to the zoo, it’s really staying in the same place. … It’s still for the betterment of the zoo.”

Education curator Emily McEvoy leads a Zoo Tots class in the zoo’s classroom. Perched on her hand is Barney, a barn owl.

Turning point

Madura and Estep’s complaints don’t stop with the handling of the budget. They’re concerned about the zoo’s long-term future. “It’s the neglected stepchild of the park district in some ways,” Estep says.

Madura says she used to be proud of Henson Robinson Zoo, especially when comparing it to other community zoos in central Illinois. Now, however, Springfield’s facility pales in comparison to places like Decatur’s Scovill Zoo, opened just a few years before Henson Robinson Zoo opened in 1970, she says.

At Scovill, visitors are greeted first thing by a flock of flamingos, a rare thing for Illinois zoos, says Dave Webster, the zoo’s director. Inside, visitors can take a quick zip past the monkeys on a zoo train, ride a carousel of endangered species and see the new red panda or a couple of cheetahs.

Scovill Zoo, with about 15 acres of land, is about the same size as Henson Robinson Zoo, which sits on about 14 acres of land on the east side of Lake Springfield, but Scovill has an annual budget of about $993,000, or nearly $300,000 more than Henson Robinson. Scovill closes through the winter but has an attendance of about 97,000 people each year. Thornton says Henson Robinson hosts anywhere from 85,000 to 95,000 visitors each year, depending on weather, with record numbers in the mid-1990s reaching about 112,000 visitors.

Scovill Zoo’s next project is to update exhibits at the center of the zoo, where the facility was focused when it opened 43 years ago. That project is outlined in the zoo’s master plan, updated just a few months ago at a cost of about $20,000. Webster says the zoo’s previous master plan was written about five years earlier.

Henson Robinson Zoo, in contrast, is still working with a master plan written in 1987 and never since revised. Although Springfield’s zoo director Thornton has requested funding for a master plan for at least the last four years, the park district has never provided the tens of thousands of dollars it expects hiring a planning firm would cost.

But, with the help of a few volunteers, Thornton may get his wish. Estep’s vocalization of some of the zoo’s problems has led the park district to form a volunteer committee, which will include zookeepers and administrators, zoo society members and community members, who will collaborate to write the zoo’s next master plan. The group has yet to meet, but all those involved with the zoo are already dreaming of new exhibits and improvements. Park District executive director Mike Stratton says the plan could be completed within six to eight months.

Peeler says the idea of a new master plan, developed with direct input from zookeepers and the community, is bringing new energy to the zoo that could help it on all fronts. “One of the things that I think is very exciting about this [the master plan] is, yes, we do have communication issues, and we have morale issues, but sometimes we have to hit the bottom and say, ‘OK this is where we’re at. We know we don’t want to be here,’ and look at the overall picture and see where we want to go.”

One of the most common refrains from zoo staff is a call for a reptile building to house several snakes and lizards that the zoo now keeps in a barn out of public view. Some of the creatures are used for educational programs, but others, including Saffron, a 16-foot long, 120-pound amelanistic Burmese python, are only ever seen by zoo staff.

“That’s another thing that’s been hard for us who’ve been laid off – just seeing the time, the care and the money they spend on these animals that aren’t even being used,” Madura says. “All of the zookeepers, if I could say that we agree on one thing, it’s that if we had our choice, we would have a reptile building.”

Most agree that a nocturnal house would be an asset as well.

Quigley, a bearded dragon, is not on display at the zoo but is frequently used for educational programs.

“One of the things we need to look at is how to complement what other area zoos have,” Peeler says, noting, for example, that Springfield wouldn’t want to try replicating the Peoria Zoo’s $25 million African exhibit opened in 2009. “It’s finding our niche, looking at what we can do really well, but being realistic as well.”

The zoo recently learned it would receive a $200,000 reimbursement grant from the state for improvements that could include new walkways and a new shelter for the bald eagles. The grant is cause for more excitement, but a master plan can help bring in more grants and help the zoo solicit donations from corporate sponsors who would be more willing to give knowing in what direction the zoo is heading, the zoo society’s Ploskonka says.

Regardless of what the plan eventually entails, much of the small zoo’s intimacy will remain intact. Its small size is one of the things that makes Henson Robinson Zoo special, says the zoo’s second most senior zookeeper, Shelly Lutes.

Lutes, who was born one year after the zoo opened in 1970, remembers her grandmother bringing her to the zoo as a child. “She could watch us walk around the whole zoo from the center,” she says, adding that the donkey she had her picture taken with when she was five years old is still around. “You don’t have to be here all day to look at stuff. It’s great for little kids. You get closer to the animals than at any big zoo. … It feels like it’s your zoo.”

In that same vein, Estep says ultimately it’s up to the public to guide the future of the zoo. “There’s a lot of blame to go around. … It’s not the fault of the employees or the zookeepers because they’re working with what they have,” Estep says. “We need to decide as a community, are we going to keep the zoo or let it fail?”

Contact Rachel Wells at rwells@illinoistimes.com.

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