Topeka Zoo receives fine from USDA for animal mistreatment, neglect

Evert Nelson | Collegian The entrance of the Topeka Zoological Park shows the times and admission fees Tuesday afternoon. Empty parking lots show the low numbers of visitors.

The city of Topeka agreed last week to pay $45,000 in fines to settle a 2011 complaint by the U.S. Department of Agriculture against the Topeka Zoo for willful violations of the Animal Welfare Act. These violations range from a rusted fence, which is a minor violation, to major violations like the unexplained or needless deaths of animals.

The USDA’s December 2011 complaint listed 51 violations by the Topeka Zoo, making it one of the largest missteps by an accredited zoo in the nation. The Topeka Zoo was unavailable for comment.

Judy Carman, co-founder of Animal Outreach of Kansas, said the zoo already has a terrible reputation for animal care.

“Unfortunately the zoo is a repeat violator of the Animal Welfare Act and there is little to suggest that this will change,” Carman said.

However, Scott Shoemaker, director of Sunset Zoo in Manhattan, believes that Topeka Zoo director Brendan Wiley is in the process of restoring credibility to the zoo.

“In the past [the Topeka Zoo] has had an issue with community support,” Shoemaker said. “The Sunset Zoo has always had really strong support from the community. They lost the trust of the community, now they have to get it back.”

In 1998, the Topeka Zoo was charged for breaching the Animal Welfare Act, but instead of being forced to pay a fine, the zoo had to invest at least $25,000 in improvements of the facility.

But the zoo had a long way to go, and more than 10 animals have died due to mistreatment since 2006. That year, a leopard died because zoo employees had been treating it with an anti-inflammatory drug that caused kidney failure, and a hippo suffered a fatal seizure after the water in its tank overheated to 108 degrees. Nine other animals died between April 2007 and July 2011 of causes including emaciation, maggot infestation and alligator attack.

Of the 51 total violations, 12 have occurred since Wiley took over as zoo director in 2010, and include two counts of failure to provide proper veterinary care.

The problem with zoos’ mistreatment of animals, said Morgan Taylor, freshman in animal science, is that the public might not be aware of all of the wrongdoings going on. Besides a couple of routine inspections, zoos operate behind closed doors.

The Topeka Zoo’s violations were discovered during biyearly inspections by the USDA, which monitors all facilities containing mammals that are open to the public. If the USDA sees that a violation is reoccurring, it will file a complaint and impose a fine.

A fine is the next-to-last straw before the zoo loses its license entirely, according to Shoemaker.

“The USDA can pull an exhibitor’s license,” Shoemaker said.

Carman has hopes that the fine will turn the Topeka Zoo around, but she is not optimistic about the prospects.

“This zoo still has the same problems and the same old response: downplay the situation and hope it goes away,” Carman said.