ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – As Albuquerque taxpayers pour millions of dollars into a long list of new improvements at the BioPark, the city is addressing some “major concerns” about how the facilities have been operating for several years.
The concerns surround the city’s animal care standards and efforts to save money through an extensive use of temporary employees and a reduction of permanent employees at the Albuquerque BioPark’s zoo and aquarium. Albuquerque city officials are now promising to address the concerns, by adding new full-time animal care positions.
Without a change, some Albuquerque BioPark advocates believe the city stands to lose many of the animals that have made the BioPark New Mexico’s top tourist destination.
More than 1.2 million people visited the Albuquerque BioPark last year, with a large share of those people visiting the Rio Grande Zoo.
The facility is a point of pride for advocates, like Julie Miller Rugg. She’s the executive director of the New Mexico BioPark Society, the non-profit support agency that helps raise funds for BioPark projects.
“Just sort of think its that oasis, it’s that thing.. a place to escape, a place to learn, it’s a place to relax, to be educated, there’s just so many levels,” said Miller Rugg. “We’re a real part of the community.”
City officials share that same feeling of the zoo’s importance to Albuquerque. Mayor Richard Berry has often called the BioPark a “crown jewel” of the city.
“People go through the BioPark and enjoy it as an attraction, but we want people to understand it’s much more than that, it’s about conservation, it’s about environmental stewardship,” said Mayor Berry.
In the last two years, the city drew up a new master plan for entire BioPark, calling for millions of dollars in new construction, remodeling and new exhibits at the zoo, aquarium, botanic garden and Tingley Beach over the next 30 years. Albuquerque city voters chose to fund the master plan, passing a 15-year sales tax increase. The tax is expected to raise about $250 million for capital projects at the BioPark. Part of that money is funding a new Penguin exhibit at the zoo, which is expected to open in 2017.
“I think the future’s bright,” said Mayor Berry. “You’re never finished improving, you always want to make sure you’re getting better every chance you get.”
The new BioPark tax money can only be used for “the capital needs” of the zoo, aquarium, botanic garden and Tingley Beach, including design, construction, acquisition, improvement, renovation, rehabilitation, and equipping or furnishing of the facilities in accordance with the Master Plan. The money can’t be used to pay for day-to-day operations.
As the BioPark grows, so too are the concerns about how the city’s been running it’s premiere zoo and the type of employees that the city has relied on to care for animals.
“Staffing has been a big issue,” Miller Rugg.
The staffing issue was raised by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) last year during a review of the BioPark’s zoo, aquarium and botanic garden. The AZA is non-profit, U.S. based, global accreditation agency that sets and reviews animal care standards and overall facility management.
While Albuquerque’s zoo and aquarium have been accredited by the AZA for last 25 years, during the most recent review of the BioPark in June 2015, the AZA raised what it saw as several “major concerns.”
“Anytime the AZA speaks, you need to take it seriously, so we took it incredibly seriously,” said Miller Rugg, reacting to the AZA’s accreditation report on the BioPark.
More than 230 zoos and aquariums are accredited by the AZA. Facilities that don’t pass accreditation usually suffer consequences in the form of losing out on important partnerships, like animal trading.
“The biggest thing that happens first is any animal that you would have that would be on loan, they would go away,” said Rugg.
For Albuquerque’s zoo, losing AZA accreditation could possibly mean losing the Tasmanian devils, the koala and big cats like the jaguar and snow leopards. Other animals, including some of the African wild dogs, the tree kangaroo, siamang apes, DeBrazza monkey, Klipspringer antelope and several birds and reptiles would likely leave the zoo, as well, as the animals are on loan to the BioPark through other AZA accredited facilities.
“Eventually the long term would be, any animal that we currently own, as they pass away, it would be very difficult to replace,” said Rugg. “Anything we could get local, would probably be what we would have. We’re talking about a facility that probably would have a lot of prairie dogs and maybe some bison.”
In part, the AZA praised the BioPark’s silvery minnow conservation efforts, the work of volunteers and docents, the zoo’s elephant program, the aquarium’s water quality team and the staff’s overall dedication to the facility.
However, the accreditation agency also harshly criticized the city’s staffing levels and training. The AZA noted a “significant reduction in permanent staff” over the past five years. It also called out the city for using too many “temporary employees,” saying the environment could compromise “human and animal safety.”
City records obtained by KRQE News 13 indicate that at least 315 different people have cycled in and out of roughly 70 different temporary jobs at the BioPark since 2012. Some of those positions are associated with relatively basic working skills, such as jobs for receptionists, administrative assistants and gardeners. But there are also several “zookeeper” positions that are filled by temporary employees. Sometimes, those temp employees have minimal or no experience working with animals. Some of those temp employees only stick around to work for a few weeks before leaving the job or being replaced.
City records indicate that while permanent staffing levels have decreased at the zoo and the rest of the BioPark, the number of animals in the city’s care has steady increased since 2012. City records indicate more than 1,100 animals are in the BioPark’s care during the fiscal year 2017 budget, which last from July 2016 through June 2017.
Former zoo employees told KRQE News 13 that zookeepers from temporary employment agencies often do the same work as the permanent professionals. That includes tasks such as animal diet prep and feeding, administering medication, animal training, animal cage cleaning, lock checking and more. Former employees told KRQE News 13 that those tasks are done with most, but not all of the animals at the zoo.
Former employees also told KRQE News 13 that many times, the inexperience with temporary employees means permanent employees end up spending much of their times juggling employee training with animal care.
Problems with temporary employee training caught the attention of U.S. Department of Agriculture inspectors in April 2015. The zoo was cited after a temp “failed to notice a non-functioning chlorine pump” for the polar bear exhibit’s main pool. City staff were unable to provide USDA inspectors any documentation to show that the temporary employee was properly trained.
“When you’re working animals that can be a danger to themselves or to staff, certainly those kinds of people should be really full time and trained in their areas,” said Rugg.
But temporary employees have also been a cost savings for the City of Albuquerque. A 2015 audit by the city’s Office of Internal Audit indicated that temporary “senior zookeepers” are about eight to nine dollars an hour cheaper than full-time city employees with benefits. That audit also said that senior zookeeper positions was the fifth most frequently hired temporary position in the city.
Top city brass defended the Berry administration’s financial strategy at a news conference in June 2016.
“It’s difficult to understand I think when you’re all down here in the trenches, down here doing a great job of it, you look at it, and say, ‘well it would be nice if there was a couple, three extra positions for animal care, or maintenance,’ and the like,” said Albuquerque’s Chief Administrative Officer Rob Perry.
“That’s true, but we (city administration) do need the nimbleness and the flexibility, so we don’t have to get in situation where we are overspent,” said Perry.
However, the AZA isn’t backing down from its concerns. Following the critical observations in their report, the AZA asked for the city to respond with an action plan to address their “major concerns.”
KRQE News 13 questioned Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry about the AZA’s criticism and his reaction to agency’s concerns.
“Well, you put a plan in place to fix it, and that’s what I think that’s what we’ve done,” said Mayor Berry.
While Mayor Berry praised the work of the current BioPark employees, he claimed the city’s tough economy is to blame for years of staffing related issues.
“If we’ve had to do some temporary employees in certain areas because of the budget constraints, just like every family that watches your story, you know, we can’t print money, we’ve got to do with the resources we have,” said Mayor Berry.
KRQE News 13 asked Mayor Berry is the cost savings of the temporary employees is worth the effect it’s having on the overall running of the zoo.
“Well once again, I think you always have to acknowledge that we are, you know, we’ve maintained our AZA accreditation,” said Mayor Berry, in response. “So things haven’t slipped to the point where we haven’t lost that accreditation.”
While the city has maintained AZA accreditation, city administrators are now ordering changes to staffing levels at the zoo.
KRQE News 13 obtained a report the city submitted to the AZA, detailing several staffing additions. The zoo recently upgraded three part-time, 30-hour-a-week zookeepers into full-time zookeepers. The city is also planning to hire four more full-time zookeepers and two new maintenance workers at the start of 2017.
In order to pay for the positions, the Mayor’s Office says it will present a budget shift to Albuquerque city council this month. The Mayor’s Office says the money for the new zoo positions is coming from the Albuquerque Museum’s fiscal year 2017 budget. If city councilors approve the budget shift, the new zoo positions will be funded through at least July 2017, but the city will have to figure out another funding source for the next budget cycle.
“We are in agreement with the AZA, I’ve had those conversations with them,” said Mayor Berry. “We all agree, let’s get these temporary positions, put them to permanent, it adds that stability moving forward.”
“For us, it’s a story about coming through the Great Recession, using constrained resources to get where we need to get, still maintaining the high bar of the AZA accreditation while doing that — that’s a testament to our people there, and now having plans in place to move forward to get some of these permanent positions, I think it just bodes well for the animals, it bodes well for the future of the BioPark,” said Mayor Berry.
Zoo advocates at the New Mexico BioPark Society are counting on the city to keep its promise to add new critical staff. Some believe the zoo is in danger of losing a lot if the city doesn’t follow through.
“In order to maintain and keep our facility at the level that the public’s used to, it’s obviously an incredibly important issue,” said Miller Rugg.
The city has also brought in new zoo leadership following the recent retirement of longtime BioPark director Rick Janser.
In July, the city hired JT Allen as the “BioPark Chief Executive.” The city says he will oversee the BioPark’s four facilities, and the execution of the new master plan.
Former Honolulu Zoo director, Dr. Baird Fleming will also join the BioPark in January 2017, as the “deputy chief executive.” The city says Dr. Fleming will oversee animal care.