By Jim Redden
Animal rights activists are taking credit for the sudden and unexplained departures of the Oregon Zoo’s director and chief veterinarian.
Metro announced that Director Kim Smith and Chief Veterinarian Mitch Finnegan were no longer with the zoo on Monday. No explanation was offered by the regional government that runs the zoo, which said it does not comment on personnel matters.
But activists who have protested the treatment of elephants at the zoo say they have demanded changes for years. A group called Free the Oregon Zoo Elephants has launched a drive to transfer Packy, the zoo’s most famous and oldest elephant, to a sanctuary. It includes a write-in campaign for Packy in all Metro races on the May 20 primary election ballot and a planned protest at the public hearing on Metro’s next budget on Thursday, May 8.
“We have been very active in the media and at Metro,” says Courtney Scott, president of the FOZE board of directors.
According to Scott and other FOZE members, Packy and the other elephants are suffering from poor conditions at the zoo. Packy and his son Rama have both been diagnosed with tuberculosis, according to zoo officials.
“There are sanctuaries that take elephants with TB,” says Scott.
Zoo officials says they are committed to the best treatment of the elephants and are expanding the animals’ enclosure at the zoo. It will increase from a little more than an acre to around six acres with the opening of Elephant Land in October 2015. The expanded space
will include a new mud wallows, a 160,000-gallon pool, and a heated 32,000-square-foot indoor space.
“We are very excited about being able to provide our elephants with an expanded habitat and look forward to them using it,” says Heidi Rahn, who manages the zoo bond program.
The $57 million project is being funded by a portion of the $125 million zoo bond approved by Metro voters in 2008. Scott and other activists accuse Metro of breaking its promise to build a larger off-site habitat for the elephants with the bond money. Rahn denies that, however. She says the the measure did not specifically mention an off-site project, although Metro is currently studying the feasibility of one in east Multnomah County.
Smith’s former job is being filled on an interim basis by Teri Dresler, the general manager of Metro Visitor Venues. Dresler previously worked at the zoo from 1995 to 2005. She also served as its deputy interim director from 2009 to 2010.
Although Finnegan is no longer with the zoo, Metro officials say existing veterinarian staff will continue providing care to zoo animals. Deputy Chief Operating Officer Scott Robinson will manage Visitor Venues while Dresler serves in the interim leadership role at the zoo.
According to Metro, zoo and Metro leadership will talk with the community about the zoo’s vision in coming weeks and seek ideas on a search process.