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If you plan to visit Hogle Zoo, don't even mention the USDA. If you do, speak in hushed tones. Otherwise, you might get thrown in the lions den - figuratively speaking, of course.

Its been just over a year since Hogle Zoo found itself the center of controversy following the death of a giraffe and other animals at the popular animal park.The deaths sparked criticism from various animal rights groups and claims of improper training from former employees, setting off an investigation by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Zoo officials say corrective action was taken and that the zoo's future is "very promising." They are reluctant to talk about what they believe were overstated problems that led to the USDA investigation, blaming the news media for making the situation appear worse that it really was.

USDA officials, for the most part, appear to agree that the situation has been remedied.

A settlement was reached late last fall, and officials say the USDA will take no further action against the zoo. Supporters of the zoo say they hope that will be the case.

With all the cool, moist weather in recent weeks, the zoo grounds are green and beautiful. And exhibits are generally looking good. The animal park has a number of new or renovated exhibits. Construction is either under way or planned on other exhibits, and zoo officials talk excitedly about plans for the future.

Thousands of visitors flock to the zoo to enjoy a wide variety of animals housed there.

Early last year a dark cloud hung over the zoo as the USDA continued probing allegations that the zoo had violated the Animal Welfare Act. Allegations ranged from claims that the zoo had dirty facilities and broken fences to charges that it caused or was negligent in the deaths of a giraffe and two gazelles.

Zoo officials denied the allegations, but the federal agency - after a long, drawn-out investigation - subsequently named the zoo in a civil complaint signed July 10, 1995.

Stiff fines and a temporary suspension of the zoo's license were among possible sanctions, assuming that the zoo was found guilty of the allegations. Last November, zoo officials and the USDA agreed to a negotiated settlement in which the zoo did not admit to any of the 11 alleged violations of federal law.

To avoid costly, lengthy litigation and avoid further negative publicity, zoo officials agreed to a $25,000 fine. Of that amount, $12,500 was to be placed in a "zoo fund" for additional training of zoo employees and facility improvements and repairs.

Under the agreement, the zoo must use the latter fund within one year (from Nov. 16, 1995, the date of the agreement) and submit a monthly report documenting use of the money to the USDA's Western region animal care office in Sacramento, Calif.

At the zoo, located at the mouth of Emigration Canyon since 1931, officials are trying to get past the USDA investigation and all that it entailed. It has been a difficult time for zoo officials. Last year the zoo had to contend not only with the USDA but with harsh criticism from the Humane Society of Utah and Animal Rights Alliance. Since then, however, both organizations have taken a much friendlier, if not positive, stance.

Zoo officials say they are pleased with the zoo's accomplishments - many that took place long before the USDA issued the complaint. And they excitedly talk about progress made at the zoo and plans for the future.

Zoo director LaMar Farnsworth and other officials don't like to talk about the investigation, strongly contending that the probe by USDA veterinarian inspectors "was never necessary in the first place."

Farnsworth said during the heat of the controversy that he believed USDA officials were pressured by some media representatives, animals rights groups and a couple of former zoo employees "who have an ax to grind with Hogle Zoo." More recently, he declined to discuss the issue, saying the consent decision and order is between the zoo and the USDA.

"We have put that (the USDA investigation and consent decision) behind us. As far as I know, all the USDA concerns have been satisfied. They were satisfied about a year ago this time," he said during a recent interview.

Blaming the media, Farnsworth said, "We wouldn't have had any problem. There wouldn't have been any investigation. There wouldn't have been anything."

He said USDA inspectors "have to find" problems or they "aren't (considered) doing their job."

Farnsworth gets upset when asked questions about anything to do with the USDA, but he smiles when talking about animals and exhibits at the zoo. His colleagues and friends have said the director has great love for and concern for the animals there and won't tolerate poor care or mistreatment of animals.

Farnsworth declined to discuss information his office has supplied to the USDA on use of the $12,500. Dr. Bob Gibbens, a USDA veterinarian who made most of the inspections that led to the complaint signing, declined to release information on use of the funds. He said a request for the information would have to be made to the Freedom of Information (FOI) Office.

Gibbens and Dr. Ron DeHaven, Western region director for the USDA, did say, however, the zoo is submitting regular reports and has been complying with the consent decree. Gibbens, who is now the supervisory animal-care specialist for the USDA's regional office in Sacramento, no longer makes periodic inspections at the zoo but said Hogle Zoo officials are cooperating well with the federal agency.

The USDA complaint, among other things, charged that the zoo "handled a giraffe in a manner that caused physical harm to the animal, thereby resulting in the animal's death." And the complaint claimed that a giraffe keeper was "not adequately trained with regard to animal movement when cleaning enclosures."

Further, it stated that zoo facilities for animals "were not structurally sound and maintained in good repair so as to protect the animals from injury . . . that the facilities (zoo perimeter fences) did not restrict the entrance of other predatory animals . . . "

Farnsworth, Utah Zoological Society Board president James E. Hogle Jr. and other zoo officials have consistently maintained that the zoo never willfully violated the law. And they said that all improvements suggested by inspectors had been made or were being made within the prescribed time.

A zoo statement released last Aug. 10 said all improvements had been verified by USDA inspectors.

In its written response to the complaint, the zoo acknowledged that two gazelles died in the fall of 1993 due to predatory animals that entered the zoo grounds. And the zoo admitted that a giraffe (Raleigh) died that same year after apparently slipping and falling, injuring itself. But the zoo denied that the "actions and training of any of its employees constituted a willful violation" of federal law.

During a recent Deseret News visit to the zoo, marketing and development director Andrew Wallace pointed to an area where concrete footings were laid beneath chain-link fencing to prevent predatory animals from burrowing under the fence. And he showed resurfaced floors in the Giraffe Building where Raleigh died in December 1993 and another giraffe died in November 1994.

Regarding past problems with predators, Wallace said the zoo inspects the zoo's perimeter fencing weekly.

"If there are any problems, we fix them, but I don't believe there have been any problems, any breaches" in the fence, Wallace said.

In the Giraffe Building, Wallace and Norm Cox, a giraffe keeper, said the roughened floor surface, designed to help prevent the zoo's five giraffes from slipping, is working well. But they said the grooved surface poses some cleaning problems.

A "guesstimate," Wallace said, is that repairs, which are at least partly tied to the USDA investigation, have cost the zoo about $100,000. Retrenching to lay concrete under the fence and tie it to the concrete cost the zoo approximately $80,000 of that amount, Wallace said.

"We are constantly maintaining exhibits, making changes, fixing things that need to be fixed. We were doing a lot of things before USDA ever entered the picture," Wallace said.

The majority of money spent as a result of the USDA inspections is "money that we didn't need to spend," Farnsworth said, referring to many other projects and facilities needed at the zoo.

USDA's DeHaven said "a lot" of the $12,500 in the zoo fund is going toward training of animal keepers. Inasmuch as USDA has not made an inspection of the zoo since Jan. 11 and 12 of this year, "I'm really not in a position to give any kind of accurate or current information on the compliance status of the zoo as a whole," DeHaven said. Zoo officials say animals are receiving very good care.

The zoo has a large collection of older animals, which is "indicative" of the good care given by zoo keepers, Wallace said.

Farnsworth, who has been director for about 32 of his 43 years at the zoo, and Wallace light up when they talk about completed new facilities, exhibits and services at the zoo and plans for the future.

Zoo operations are possible, in part, due to state funding. But the zoo also relies heavily on gate admissions and private and foundation gifts. The 1996 Legislature appropriated $1 million in the 1997 fiscal year budget for the zoo, and lawmakers approved another $660,000 in one-time funding for the animal park. Most of the latter amount will go toward the development of Monkey Forest, where the first phase is scheduled to open Aug. 3. When the entire project is completed, it will replace Monkey Island, the oldest (since 1931) exhibit at the zoo. The three phases of Monkey Forest will cost an estimated $1.8 to $2 million, Wallace said.

In June 1995 the zoo opened a new exhibit, Butterfly World, which was constructed and equipped at a cost of about $350,000. Four exhibits have been renovated in the Feline Building at a cost of $10,000 to $20,000 each, and the zoo has plans to renovate 10 more exhibits in that structure, built in 1968.

A World of Flight bird show was started last June. The zoo has improved visitor services, Wallace said, through its new gift store, Flamingo Zootique. The zoo auditorium was renovated at a cost of approximately $10,000.

Other improvements have been made and are planned in the future, including a large North American exhibit, which will feature wolverines, beavers, otters, badgers and other animals.

Bill Greer, a state fiscal analyst who oversees the zoo, told the Deseret News he believes the zoo is "doing a good job of handling money and spreading its resources. I think they (zoo management and board) have been trying to maximize the resources they have and (working at) increasing sources of revenue from the private sector and donations. But I guess there is always room for improvement."

The analyst said he thinks that "part of the problems (resulting with the) USDA (investigation) were due to insufficient funding. I don't know if (they) all were."

The zoo, which currently gets about 23 percent of its funding from the state, was previously funded by Salt Lake City. Salt Lake County contributed to the zoo during fiscal 1983 and 1984. The state took over the subsidy in fiscal 1985 with $1.4 million in general funds. The zoo funds were reduced nearly 24 percent in fiscal 1987 and about 44 percent in fiscal 1989. The zoo was told that when the state's economic picture improved, funding to the zoo would be restored. That restoration has not fully taken place, Greer said.

"If funding were restored and adjusted for inflation, the zoo's base budget would be more than $2 million per year. The current base budget is not at the fiscal 1986 funding level," Greer said.

He said he believes the "city and county should participate now with the state in giving financial support to the zoo since they (the city and county) derive some of the financial benefits, which include sales tax and transient room taxes."

The zoo's 54-acre site is owned by Salt Lake City, but the zoo is operated by the Utah Zoological Society.

What's ahead for the zoo, which is planning to commemorate its 65th anniversary this summer, and its approximately 1,400 animals?

That depends on a lot of things, Farnsworth says, but he sees it "getting better. We don't have the room to expand outside the zoo property, but we could spend the next 30 years redeveloping the inside of the zoo. The zoo is a living organism. It is something that you just can't build and have it last forever."

He said people sometimes ask for details about the zoo's master plan. He said the plan is not detailed, explaining that the zoo must be ready for construction before designs are made so it "can bring in all the latest updated techniques and ideas."

The key to a successful future for the zoo?

"It's really revenue. You've got to have the money to do it." But the director said the zoo is in "better shape now than we have ever been."



Complaints against zoo:

U.S. Department of Agriculture complaints included:

- Inadequate training for handlers.

- Structural and maintenance problems with zoo facilities.

- Improper handling of an injured giraffe that died.

- Fencing that allowed predators into the park.