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October 4th, 2006 Ian Demsky | News Stories
 

The Dixie Pix

Zoo officials let employees pose with Rebel flags and the Oregon Zoo train. Is it harmless fun or an inappropriate use of public property?

     
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REBEL YELL: Zoo employees Greg Newcomb (left) and Ken Lauderback with the redecorated Oregon Zoo train.
The two men in the sepia-toned photographs above could be a couple of low-budget Civil War reenactors standing in thin woods down South next to an old-time steamer decked out with two Rebel flags.

But that's not what they are. They're Oregon Zoo employees, standing on public property next to a beloved 47-year-old public icon, the zoo train, which bears the nameplate "General Lee" (visible in the photo above right).

One of the men is Ken Lauderback, engineer of the train, which normally bears the name "Oregon" on its run between the zoo and Washington Park. The other is Greg Newcomb, a part-time worker who does various jobs for the zoo.

Lauderback, a Civil War history buff and collector of antique memorabilia, told WW that the photos were taken several months ago on the zoo rail line for private use as an expression of a jovial, North-South rivalry between friends. He got the OK to do so from the zoo's deputy director, Carmen Hannold.

"It has nothing to do with any racism," says Lauderback. "I had permission to do this on my own time and away from the public."

Moreover, he says the photos were kept on a desk in a train building at the zoo that few members of the public ever enter. Lauderback adds that he tucks the photos away when a tour does come through. But Lauderback, who has worked at the zoo for 14 years, was also aware of how inflammatory the pictures might be.

"Do not, under any circumstances, publish that photograph, because it has Confederate flags on it and you will cost me my job," he told WW in a phone interview. "I'm so far from being a racist it's not even funny. To me, it's malicious on your part. You are trying to stir up trouble where none exists."

Lauderback apologized Friday in an email to all zoo staff. (To read it, visit wweek.com.)

The photos were leaked to WW by someone who said at least some zoo employees who saw them felt they were inappropriate. Hannold says no employees had complained about the photos to her.

The photos surfaced on the heels of another racially charged stink at the zoo (see Murmurs, Sept. 6, 2006). Last month, WW reported that the new elephant-barn supervisor, Joe Sebastiani, showed up to his first day of work Aug. 21 sporting a bumper sticker on his car that called the white race "Earth's most endangered species." Sebastiani told zoo officials it was a joke played on him by former co-workers and removed it. He was not disciplined.

Hannold has seen the train photos and finds nothing wrong with them. She says the zoo gets daily requests from its guests, its employees and outside groups to film or photograph its facilities. There is no written policy or standards for deciding among the hundreds of requests they get yearly.

"Our standard is based on how the photograph is taken and its end use," she says. "If this photograph were to be used in a train magazine, it would have been assessed differently than for personal use."

After WW asked Metro Council President David Bragdon to look at the photos last week, Bragdon said he was troubled by the zoo's lack of a clear policy (Metro runs the zoo).

"What if someone came to us and said they were a World War II enthusiast and wanted to pose by the train in a Nazi uniform?" he asked. "Clearly, we need to be able to draw a line."

The photos surfaced at a time when tensions between zoo staff and management have been high. Last week the employees' union voted 75-6 not to ratify a new labor contract.

Newcomb, who has worked at the zoo for five years, did not respond to a request for comment made through zoo officials.

The Confederate photos were removed last week from the train building after WW's inquiry.

An apology email sent Friday, Sept. 29 from Ken Lauderback to all zoo employees.

>>> Ken Lauderback 9/29/2006 3:36:50 PM >>>

Dear zoo staff:

An issue has arisen that has caused me to seek permission to send out an all zoo email.

Some of you may be aware of a photograph I took recently of the steam locomotive in an attempt to recreate a Civil War era photograph. As a history enthusiast, I have a particular interest in the Civil War era and a great respect for those who fought on both sides of the conflict.

Because another staff member is originally from the south, we thought it would be a nice keepsake to recreate a view of a locomotive from the Confederate side of the conflict and sought permission to momentarily put flags on the locomotive strictly for the purpose of the photograph.

It was never our intent to make any sort of personal or political statement by the use of the Confederate flag. It has been brought to my attention that some staff may have been made uncomfortable by the use of this flag in the photograph. If this is the case, you have my sincere apology. I care deeply about the zoo and its mission, and I have great respect for the people with whom I work. I would never intentionally do anything which might reflect badly on the organization or my co-workers.

Again, I have a strong commitment to the railroad and to the zoo as a whole. I care about the great people that work here. I'm very sorry for offending anyone with this historic recreation photograph. That was not my intent.

Respectfully, Ken Lauderback


Full-size pictures @ www.wweek.com/media/8053.jpg & www.wweek.com/media/8053-1.jpg
 
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