Metro: Dismissals at Oregon Zoo related to death of orangutan

Metro: Dismissals at Oregon Zoo related to death of orangutan »Play Video
Kutai, the male orangutan at the Oregon Zoo looks through the glass in his exhibit. Kutai died in January following an illness. (© Oregon Zoo / Photo by Carli Davidson)

PORTLAND, Ore. – Metro, the agency in charge of the Oregon Zoo, said this week’s dismissals of Oregon Zoo director Kim Smith and lead veterinarian Mitch Finnegan are tied to the death of zoo’s Sumatran orangutan, Kutai.

In a statement on its website, Metro said an investigation concluded that “mistakes were made and important information was not disclosed.”

Kutai died in January following an illness, zoo officials said. He was born Dec. 16, 1993 at Sedgwick County Zoo in Wichita, Kan., and came to Portland in 2001.

Smith and Finnegan were dismissed on Monday and KATU could not immediately reach them for comment Thursday.

Metro listed the following key findings from the investigation:

  • Standard operating procedures and best practices were not followed.
  • Lapses in procedures and protocols were tolerated.
  • There was a lack of trust regarding the accuracy of reports and whether important facts regarding animal care were omitted.

The On Your Side Investigators sat down with Metro's communications director, Jim Middaugh, Thursday to get specifics about the investigation, including which mistakes were made, which procedures were broken, which protocols were tolerated, and what reports seemed inaccurate - among others - but Middaugh stuck to talking points and would not elaborate.

"I'm not going to go into specifics but what's important to remember is is that we hold ourselves to very high standards for animal care and when information came to light that those standards were not being met, we took action," Middaugh told KATU.

When asked further about the investigation, Middaugh said, "I understand that the answers I'm providing may not satisfy all of your questions at this time. What I can say is that we responded to the information we received and what I believe was an effective and appropriate way to ensure that animal care is maintained at the Oregon Zoo."

Middaugh also cited personnel issues.

KATU filed public records requests for any documents about Kutai's death as well as the zoo's protocols, procedures and best standards. KATU also requested a copy of Kutai's necropsy, the animal autopsy.

Metro's statement went on to say that the agency will work with veterinary and animal care staff to “implement a thorough and thoughtful review of animal care procedures and protocols.”

Also Thursday, a group of protesters lined the streets outside of Metro's Northeast Portland headquarters, waving signs in support of better care for elephants at the Oregon Zoo.

The group - what appeared to be a combination of animal activists and impassioned strangers - also spoke out against Smith and Finnegan's firings. Several protesters told KATU they felt Metro's statement left out important details and lacked transparency about Kutai's death.

Protester Jeremiah Johnson was so adamant about ensuring better care for Oregon Zoo's animals, elephants in particular, that he said he was running for Metro president.

"I'm absolutely not satisfied," Johnson said. "In fact, that's one of the things that I've been frustrated with Metro on several occasions and why I ran in the first place because we're not getting details on pretty much any decisions, any of their agreements or any of their activities."

Smith and Finnegan's backgrounds:

Both Smith and Finnegan played key roles in management at the Oregon Zoo.

Finnegan oversaw veterinary services at the zoo, as well as the zoo’s veterinary center. He managed a staff of four additional veterinarians – three full-time and one part-time.

Smith took over as zoo director in 2010, less than two months after an audit concluded construction projects at the zoo had been plagued by delays and cost overruns.

She was replaced on an interim basis by Metro’s General Manager of Visitor Venues, Teri Dresler, who was also a former deputy director at the zoo. Dresler also worked on the zoo staff in other roles for 10 years, from 1995 to 2005.

Over the last three years, a total of 37 full-time staff have resigned, retired, or have been fired according to information KATU requested from Metro.
Full-time Staff Changes Since January 1, 2011:

  • 19 resignations
  • 9 retirements
  • 2 layoffs
  • 2 failure to complete probations**
  • 5 discharged/fired
  • 37 total

**Metro told KATU that all new employees have a probationary period. It's typically six months. Metro reserves the right to let people go during the probation period for any reason. After that, Middaugh said "there's different approaches for different types of employees, i.e. management vs. union, different union contracts, etc."

The information KATU received did not specify if Smith and Finnegan were included in the 5 people who were discharged or the details surrounding any other firings.