12 Mammals That Matter To the Oregon Zoo

It's a beastly time at the state's most popular tourist attraction. These political animals will determine its future.

To lose an orangutan was a setback.

But to lose the orangutan, a zoo director, the chief veterinarian and the support of keepers—that's a sign of serious trouble at the Oregon Zoo.

Kutai, a 20-year-old Sumatran orangutan, died in January after minor surgery. An investigation into his death led regional government Metro on May 5 to fire the zoo's director and its chief veterinarian.

The firings have placed the zoo's flaws on unflattering display.

On the one hand, the Oregon Zoo is the most popular ticketed tourist attraction in the state. Last year, nearly 1.7 million people—a record high—passed through its gates deep in Portland's West Hills to view 1,713 animals of 230 species, from tiny dogwinkle snails to lolling Malayan sun bears.

Yet in a city that prides itself on being at the forefront of all things green—from bike lanes to cruelty-free farming—the Oregon Zoo is a relic.

It doesn't appear on anyone's list of the nation's top zoos. Its chief claim to fame is its elephant-breeding program—a project many of its peers have abandoned as outdated and barbaric.

The zoo's central buildings so evoke the 1960s, you half expect to see Don Draper buying Sally ice cream. Many of the animals still live in tanks and cages built 50 years ago.

"The zoo industry has evolved a lot since that place was built," says David Bragdon, the former Metro Council president who pressed for reform at the zoo five years ago. "That old model of zoos with cages and two of every type of animal in them is very much a 20th-century model."

Five years ago, in an effort to change this, the zoo asked voters for $125 million to move its animals into larger, more natural habitats. Even in the depths of the recession, voters said yes.

The bond measure was intended to be the key to the zoo breaking free of its past. Instead, it has drawn scorn from animal-rights activists, and a blistering audit. Both have charged Oregon Zoo leaders with failing to control costs, waffling on promises and camouflaging unpleasant facts.

Now comes Kutai's death, which could have been prevented, and the firing of the zoo director and chief veterinarian, for keeping their bosses in the dark about what happened.

That's why WW decided to take a closer look at the 12 mammals who, in one form or another, represent the promise and challenges facing the Oregon Zoo.

Some of them are captive creatures with no control of their fate. Others are bipeds who have a lot to say about the zoo's future. All are caught in the circle of zoo life.

We start with the animal who didn't live to see the controversy he caused.


Phil Prewett was working the night shift as a keeper at the Oregon Zoo in 2008 when he saw Kutai reaching through the mesh of his cage.

"They've got huge hands and really long fingernails," Prewett recalls. "He was using that fingernail, working that into the keyhole, trying to pick the lock."

By the time Kutai died in January, he was the beneficiary of a new habitat and medical center designed for his welfare.

Kutai underwent minor surgery Jan. 2 to treat an infection in the air sacs along his neck.

The procedure was performed at the zoo's $8.8 million veterinary center, built with money from the 2008 bond.

Kutai's lungs began hemorrhaging after the surgery—records show the bleeding was probably the result of a technician not properly monitoring his anesthesia.

Kutai underwent a second surgery, but his heart stopped as he was being carried back to Red Ape Reserve, a $3.45 million habitat the zoo built in 2010 to allow him to wander outside.

His death would have been a footnote in the zoo's history—except that it led to a regime change.


That team performed the orangutan's final surgeries. Four months later, Finnegan and zoo director Kim Smith were fired.

Metro officials have been reluctant to talk, and for weeks refused to release the report of the internal investigation that led to the firings. (Finnegan has declined to comment to WW; Smith could not be reached.) 

Metro this week issued a summary of its investigation. It says medical staff didn't have cardiac drugs or a "crash cart" available when Kutai's heart failed, the battery on the ultrasound machine was dead when veterinarians tried to revive him, and one of Finnegan's assistants was sending text messages during the ape's final surgery.

The report implies that Smith and Finnegan attempted to cover up the errors that occurred in Kutai's final days, and failed to discipline staff for mistakes. 

While some critics of the zoo praised Metro for taking firm and decisive action, others have rallied behind Finnegan. (They haven't done the same for Smith, whose management style was often unpopular.)

"I find it just inconceivable that you destroy a man's career over that," Prewett says. "There's something that really stinks about this whole mess, and it's not animal byproduct. It's some political bullshit."


Take the Columbia Basin pygmy rabbit. It's the smallest rabbit in North America—a full-grown adult is the size of a kitten.

It's supposed to live in the high desert of eastern Washington state. But the pygmy rabbit lost much of its habitat to farmland and invasive grasses planted for livestock grazing. In 2002, only 16 were left in Washington.

The Oregon Zoo started breeding pygmy rabbits. This was as successful a project as you might imagine breeding rabbits to be. By 2011, it released 50 of them back into the desert—inside a wire enclosure to protect them from coyotes.

The rabbit project won a top 2012 Association of Zoos and Aquariums North American Conservation Award. One sign of how well it went? There are no more pygmy rabbits at the zoo. They've all been returned to the wild.

The zoo's efforts to preserve native species—including turtles, butterflies and the huge, bald California condor—are among its most successful.

"I know there's been a lot of criticism of the zoo," says Scott Hoffman Black, executive director of the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, which protects endangered butterflies. "But on these local conservation projects, they do really great work."


The Oregon Zoo brings in almost enough money to fund most of its operations. Last year, it generated $20.9 million from ticket sales, special events, and snack-bar and gift-shop purchases. That's nearly two-thirds of its annual operating budget of $32.2 million.

It manages this despite being one of the most inexpensive zoos in America to visit. At $11.50 per ticket, it's a far cheaper day out than more iconic places like the San Diego Zoo, where admission is $46.

About $12 million comes on an annual basis from Metro, the regional government body that also runs land-use planning and trash collection for three counties.

Another half-million dollars come each year from the Oregon Zoo Foundation, which in 2012 raised $7.4 million in private contributions.

"We are always telling the story of the zoo," says Iverson, who in 2012 earned $124,839 directing the nonprofit.

The foundation helped gather political support for the $125 million bond measure. And it's chipped in money on top of that bond—collecting $460,000 from more than 500 donors to buy new medical equipment for the veterinary clinic.


"This experiment in regional government is an odd duck," says Tom Cox, a Republican business consultant who unsuccessfully ran for a seat on the Metro Council, "and doesn't have good checks and balances other than the auditor."

One year after voters approved the $125 million bond, Flynn released a damning evaluation of zoo construction projects.

She reported that the three projects she audited, including the new veterinary clinic, started construction with designs that cost more than the zoo had budgeted.

"There was no consistent, basic approach," Flynn wrote. "Animal keepers were given inaccurate information about when exhibits would be ready, and animal move-in dates slipped several times. Status reports indicated the project was within budget and ahead of schedule. In reality, the project was over budget and behind schedule."

Flynn found the zoo had fostered a “results at any cost” culture that led to denial of what was actually happening. 

"While we found no evidence of fraud," she wrote, "we found information was misrepresented and that incorrect information was presented to Metro Council."

Two top zoo personnel abruptly resigned days before the audit's release in 2009. Director Tony Vecchio had left months before the report.

Bragdon, after reading Flynn's report, says he saw a zoo riddled with wishful thinking.

"There was a reluctance for bad news to travel up the chain of command," he recalls. "Something would not go quite as planned, and there'd be a sense of 'Let's just not admit there was a problem.'"

Kim Smith was hired to fix that culture. And she made progress: When Flynn released a follow-up audit in 2011, she said almost all of the zoo's spending mistakes had been addressed, and the veterinary clinic was back on budget.

But its schedule has left some animals waiting.


Its advertising campaign was headlined by a polar bear named Conrad, who, zoo officials said, would get a spacious new home.

"Metro gave us 'Conrad's new condo' as part of their pitch," Cox says. "Anybody who wants to pose as an environmental group is going to find the cuddliest animal even tangentially related to their cause and put them up front. The bears might have gotten their own ice floe or something."

That's hyperbole, but Metro did pledge that the bond measure would, among other things, enable 19-year-old Conrad and his twin sister, Tasul, to get out of the concrete pit they were living in.

"They're too hot," warned zoo general curator Chris Pfefferkorn in the Voters' Pamphlet. "The current polar bear exhibit is a concrete bowl which reaches over 100 degrees in summer. Measure 26-96 will give the polar bears more space; chilled water; a safer, more natural habitat; and better, cooler conditions."

The measure passed easily, getting 59 percent of the vote at the height of the recession.

Five years later, the zoo has completed two of the projects that the bond was intended to fund: the medical clinic and a condor exhibit.

But many others haven't been started—including Conrad's new home. The polar bear still lives in his overheated concrete tank. Visitors can watch Tasul engage in ritualistic behavior that experts say is a symptom of stress and boredom—including walking backward, in a circle, while shaking her head.

"We're moving as quickly as reasonably possible," says Metro's general manager of visitor venues, Teri Dresler, who has taken over zoo operations after firing Smith. "I don't think anybody's happy we couldn't do everything first."

"This is corrosive to their credibility," Cox says. "They've put Conrad on a waiting list for polar bear subsidized housing."

Construction is slated to begin in 2017.


Asian elephant Rose-Tu gave birth to a female calf, which the zoo named Lily. The news delighted the public.

The zoo braced for record attendance, which it got: Baby elephants always draw huge crowds, as visitors line up to catch a glimpse of what the zoo calls in internal documents "charismatic mega-vertebrates."

The Oregon Zoo has a storied history of breeding elephants, dating to the birth of Packy in 1962—the first elephant ever born in an American zoo. Since then, the zoo has bred another 27 elephants.

This time, the good vibes lasted only five days. On Dec. 4, 2012, The Seattle Times revealed that a California-based traveling elephant show called Have Trunk Will Travel had purchased the rights to Lily. Have Trunk, which had drawn repeated accusations of abusing its animals, was to take ownership of Lily after she was 6 months old, in exchange for the breeding services of Tusko, a bull elephant that had been loaned to the Oregon Zoo in 2005.

The publicity turned from dream to nightmare. "I can assure you," Kim Smith told The Seattle Times, "there is no need for any petitions to keep Rose-Tu's baby with her family." The following February, the zoo purchased the rights to Lily and Tusko for $400,000, using money from the Oregon Zoo Foundation. But the bad taste in the mouths of many Portlanders, that the zoo was in league with circuses, lingered.

Lily still lives at the zoo, surrounded by construction for a new exhibit scheduled to open next year.


Elephant breeding has long been the most controversial practice at the zoo. For decades, animal-rights activists have decried the practice as inhumane, especially as Oregon Zoo calves have died from past inbreeding of related elephants.

It's not just breeding that is the problem. Zoos across the country—from Dallas to Los Angeles to Madison, Wisc.—have rid themselves of elephants because of a growing belief that elephants are uniquely unsuited to the confined space of zoos. Since 1991, 22 U.S. zoos have shut down their elephant exhibits or promised to retire them.

The Oregon Zoo has been under pressure for years to get rid of its herd ("Free the Elephants!," WW, Aug. 29, 2001). That's why, when campaigning for the 2008 bond, zoo officials said that some of the money would be spent buying a 100-acre, off-site reserve for elephants.

Few have been advocating getting out of the elephant business as loudly as Spears and Gramstad.

The couple, owners of a series of Portland furniture stores, have been involved in animal-rights efforts for decades—including a successful campaign to reduce euthanasia at the Multnomah County animal shelter. This year, they've funded a campaign (including full-page advertisements in WW) trying to pressure Metro officials to cease elephant breeding.

They weren't happy when they learned the zoo had changed its plans for the off-site elephant reserve ("Tusk, But Verify," WW, Dec. 12, 2012). Instead of sending its elephant herd to the off-site reserve, the zoo planned to more than double its elephant population in the next decade—from eight elephants to as many as 19—and keep a second herd at the off-site reserve.

"The Oregon Zoo, as it is today, represents the mentality it had in 1910," Spears says. "They need to move it into the 21st century. And I am confident that the new model looks nothing like this elephant exhibit."

The activist couple has also begun scrutinizing how bond money is spent—because the price tag on a new elephant habitat keeps growing.

"I know why Metro is trying to reassure people that they are on time and on budget," Gramstad says. "It's because they aren't, unless you consider that they will always be on time and on budget as long as they can continually reinvent those timelines and budgets."

Metro officials dispute that, saying cost increases on the habitat are typical for large construction projects. 

Spears and Gramstad now say they plan to pour money into the 2016 Metro Council race, targeting seats where they can start reform. "We don't feel elected officials respond to moral and ethical arguments," Gramstad says. "How do you get leverage? Money."


When pitching the bond to voters, zoo officials said the money would pay for a new hippopotamus tank that would make the water easier to clean. (Hippos are perpetually defecating in the water.)

But when the zoo released its master plan three years later, the hippo project had been canceled. Instead, the zoo now plans to spend the money on expanding its black rhinoceros exhibit, so it can integrate the endangered rhinos with giraffes and other animals. It also plans to breed more rhinos.

The zoo said the decision came after gauging public opinion. The survey, conducted by Davis, Hibbitts & Midghall in June 2011, showed that six in 10 of those polled preferred rhinos to hippos. The two female hippos, Mukenko and Kiboko, will be shipped to other zoos.

The zoo has only one rhino now: Zuri, a female. Its previous attempt to get another ended poorly.

In 2008, the zoo agreed to take a female rhino, Kipenzi, from the Kansas City Zoo. An Oregon Zoo employee drove the sedated rhino cross-country, with Kipenzi in a crate in the back of a truck.

But "about half an hour outside Phoenix," according to documents filed with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, Kipenzi keeled over and died. The zoo said it would reconsider how it shipped animals, to keep the trips as short as possible.


Keepers want top veterinarian Finnegan to get his job back. Activists are doubling down on protests of elephant breeding and construction. And the media keeps asking why Metro fired the director who was supposed to reform the zoo.

But Hughes has taken a hands-off approach—even though the zoo takes up 26 percent of Metro's budget. In fact, when Metro officials decided to fire Smith and Finnegan, Hughes wasn't consulted. He says he wanted it that way.

"I don't hire and fire," he says. "I hired somebody to hire and fire."

Dresler, who until this month was handling negotiations for Hughes' favored project, a Hyatt hotel at the Oregon Convention Center, is now running the zoo.

Hughes says critics are targeting a successful institution as part of a national campaign to discredit zoos.

"Zoos are lightning rods," he tells WW. "If you can find chinks in this process, then it becomes easier to go after other zoos that don't have the reputation and public support ours does."

Hughes' calm belies the tumult at the zoo. But maybe that's survival instinct. If we've learned one thing from the Oregon Zoo, it's that getting too close to wild animals can end your career.