County investigation of Vilas Zoo confirms ‘toxic’ work environment, blames staff not bosses | Local Government

A Dane County review of the work environment at the Vilas Zoo found a “predominant theme” of “toxicity” that includes racist and sexist comments, a lack of employees of color, an inadequate animal welfare system and management favoritism toward certain employees.

But the two-week review places the blame on certain staff members for creating an “Us vs. Them” mentality toward management and doesn’t specify whether staff or management used racist or sexist language.

The release of the review’s findings and recommendations comes a day before the County Board is set to consider commissioning an independent review of management at the zoo after the Wisconsin State Journal reported on allegations of racism, discrimination and animal neglect by the zoo’s only Black zookeepers, who resigned.

In a sharply worded memo Wednesday, County Executive Joe Parisi said newly elected County Board Chair Patrick Miles set an “adversarial tone” in a memo to supervisors last week calling for an independent probe of the zoo, a potential analysis of the county’s Office of Equity and Inclusion and ensuring that employees don’t face discrimination from management. Miles “asserted, without evidence, that county managers act discriminatorily and subjectively toward our employees,” Parisi said.

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In response, Miles said Parisi “made an accusation without evidence,” explaining that his statement was “about making sure the system is designed around protecting our employees.”

Parisi acknowledged that the report by county investigators showed the zoo had “room for improvement” with “both managers and certain members of the zoo’s workforce.”

“There will be job coaching, professional development and in some cases a need for improvement plans,” Parisi said. “It’s quite clear from employee interviews that some are perpetuating divisiveness at the zoo.”

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The report, completed by two county civil servants, Kabura Mukasa and Carrie Braxton, both of whom are Black, detailed dozens of findings and suggested improvements for staff and management at the zoo.

Investigators said managers appear to favor some staff over others in job assignments. They also don’t include zookeeper input on animal welfare decisions and should interact with guests at the zoo more, make more of an effort to retain and recruit people of color and respond more quickly to correspondence from zoo employees.

The report included ample findings and suggestions regarding zoo staff as well.

Zoo staff too often gossip and slander managers and other employees, the report said. Staff make new employees feel unwelcome and have a “misconception” that they are disciplined unequally, it added.

On animal welfare, the zoo has a “conflict of interest” on its animal welfare committee, which has oversight over the care of animals, according to the report. Those who head the committee are “also the decision-makers who have final say on what can and cannot be done for the welfare of the animals.” People have also left the committee because they feel they are not being listened to, the report found.

Investigators recommend that the zoo research how other zoos have determined who gets to lead animal welfare committees.

In interviews with the Wisconsin State Journal, former and current zookeepers said the actions of management led to the deaths of some animals. Those incidents include a penguin that was decapitated by a raccoon, a capybara that fell into a pool during sedation and died the next day, and a hornbill that died and got partially eaten by a meerkat.

In its finding regarding racism, investigators wrote that “managers and/or staff exhibit micro-aggressions” and make “insensitive, sexist and racist comments.”

To ameliorate those issues, the zoo’s Diversity, Equity, Access and Inclusion committee will partner with the county’s Office of Equity and Inclusion in an effort to make the zoo’s diversity policies more effective. The county also offered to provide zoo staff and management with training and coaching.

Yet the report had its harshest words for the county workers’ union, Employee Group 65. Staff felt poorly represented by the union and leadership promoted a “divisive, disrespectful, disparaging, acrimonious tone and manner of the communications toward management,” the report said. Some staff had stopped paying dues to the union or are afraid to do so because of retaliation, the report stated.

A representative for the union had not responded to a request for comment.

Not the last word

County supervisors still plan to discuss an independent investigation of the zoo at the board’s executive committee Thursday evening.

Miles said supervisors need to explore whether the county’s probe was sufficient. Potential options include a peer review of the report, an operational audit or hiring a retired county judge who can review the facts impartially.

“The bottom line is I think public trust in one of our valued services, that being the zoo, has been undermined,” Miles said. “My personal opinion is, in large part, management and staff at the zoo are all high-quality people doing what they think is best. That doesn’t mean I don’t think there are problems, and those are things we should explore.”

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In Parisi’s memo, the county executive offered a forceful defense of the Office of Equity and Inclusion. Staff there immediately started an investigation of the zoo following the resignation of its two Black zookeepers, Parisi said.

“Two women of color, Dane County civil servants, spent weeks exploring the concerns raised in those exit interviews,” Parisi wrote. “Suggestions their work could be done by others differently or better, dismisses their work, questions their professionalism and is inherently an example of an implicit bias.”