Zoo talk

The future size and appearance of the Oleson Park Zoo will be determined by a proposed contract between the city government, which owns the site, and the Friends of the Oleson Park Zoo, which owns the animals and operates the facility.

That proposed contract will be discussed by the city’s Parks, Recreation and Forestry Commission when it meets at 4 p.m. Wednesday in the Municipal Building, 819 First Ave. S.

The proposal calls for reducing the number of animals in the zoo by10, according to Lori Branderhorst, the city’s director of parks, recreation and forestry.

The zoo is now home to about 60 animals.

The city budget for the zoo is now just $500, which mostly pays for utilities.

The Friends of the Oleson Park Zoo pays for the animals’ food, veterinary services, pest control, security and any improvements at the site, according to Jim Kramer, the president of the group. He was unable to estimate how much money the group spends on those things.

”I don’t have the figures in front of me,” he said Monday afternoon. ”It’s a considerable amount. I don’t want to give you a number because I’d be wrong.”

He said all the money comes from donations.

”We’re hoping that the city will become more involved in the financial aspect,” he added.

The Friends group had gross receipts of less than $50,000 in each of the last three years, according to information posted on the Internal Revenue Service web site.

Improving the zoo is the goal of the new contract to be discussed Wednesday, according to Steve Daniel, the chairman of the Parks, Recreation and Forestry Commission,

”We’re trying to make it a happier place for the animals and the kids,” he said.

Kramer said he agrees with that objective.

”The goal is to make it both more attractive for the animals and the people who visit them and make it easier to maintain from the volunteer standpoint,” he said.

The zoo became the subject of criticism after two Arctic foxes that lived there died last summer.

Following those deaths, several residents publicly questioned the level of care provided to the animals and called for a reduction in the zoo population.

In the ensuing months federal inspectors issued a series of reports critical of the zoo. The most recent inspection report, dated Sept. 20, 2012, again cites an accumulation of animal feces, this time in the prairie dog enclosure.

Branderhorst has been meeting with leaders of the private Friends group since September to negotiate the contract.

”I have been so happy with our progress,” she said.

”We all want the same thing, which is a nice zoo that we can all be proud of,” Branderhorst added.

Branderhorst said she was directed by the Parks, Recreation and Forestry Commission to negotiate a contract that would reduce the number of animals and improve the appearance of the zoo.

”At the end of the day, there has to be a decision made on the direction of the zoo,” Daniel said. ”I’m assuming there will be some decisions made about the population and hopefully some ideas will come forward on the future improvement of the zoo.”

Branderhorst said the zoo ”will always be there.”

”It’s just a matter of how many animals will be there and what it will look like,” she said.

Branderhorst credited the Friends group with making some recent improvements.

”The Friends of the Zoo in the last two months have done an incredible job of recruitment of volunteers,” she said. ”They have made great big strides in improving the services and the care of those animals.”

Branderhorst said she has asked Joe Mueller, a Fort Dodge graphic artist, to prepare some drawings showing what a revamped zoo may look like in the future.

The Friends of the Oleson Park Zoo was established in 2000 to help pay for a project launched in 1999 which created the barn and current animal pens. The organization was granted ownership of the animals in 2001 mainly so that it could acquire new animals and sell others without going through the city government bidding process.

Under a 2008 contract with the city, the Friends organization became responsible for feeding the animals. Between 1999 and 2007, the city government spent more than $146,000 to pay city workers to do zoo chores, so the contract provided some budgetary relief.

Over the years, the group has purchased animals at various trade shows and auctions, including an exotic animal auction regularly held in Lockridge.

The Oleson Park Zoo is not accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, according to Steve Feldman, a spokesman for the organization. He said the association has independent standards that must be met before a facility can be accredited.

The local zoo does come under the jurisdiction of the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, which is part of the United States Department of Agriculture. Its inspectors enforce the federal Animal Welfare Act.

Death of the foxes

When two Arctic foxes died last summer, conditions at the zoo came under increased scrutiny.

The animals died in June 2012. One was found dead in its pen. The other was taken to a veterinarian who was unable to help. The fox was then taken to the home of a Friends member, who was unable to nurse it back to health.

A heat wave may have been a factor in the deaths, Kramer said last July. He also acknowledged that the zoo doesn’t have access to a veterinarian who specializes in exotic animals.

However, a federal inspection report cast doubt on the possibility that hot weather killed the foxes.

In the July 12, 2012, inspection report, Dr. Heather Cole, a veterinarian for the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, wrote that the foxes had fleas and possibly anemia.

Cole wrote that the veterinarian who examined the fox said it was ”beyond help” when it arrived at his office.

”He also stated that he had ‘a hard time believing it was the heat’ that led to the death of the animal,” Cole wrote. She did not name the veterinarian.

The situation prompted her to call for better veterinary care at the zoo.

”Failure to seek medical attention and/or provide medical treatments, prevention and diagnostics in animals with flea infestations showing signs of illness or injury can be detrimental to the health of the animals,” she wrote. ”The facility must establish and maintain programs of adequate veterinary care that include the use of appropriate methods to prevent, control, diagnose and treat diseases and injuries, including flea infestations.”

In response to that report, the Friends of the Oleson Park Zoo implemented a pest control policy and started using a power washer to clean the animal pens.

That effort wasn’t always successful, prompting inspectors to cite the zoo for an accumulation of animal waste in September 2012.