By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Melton must have been thrilled when the tables were suddenly turned on Rogers.
May 5, 1998, was supposed to be Rogers' day off, but she was at the farm, working the same seven days a week she had for years. She had fed the animals and gone into the barn to work at the rehab center. Eight classes of first-grade students from Edna Rowe Elementary School were on a field trip. A few kids were getting out of hand in the petting zoo, as kids often did. Rogers watched children throwing rocks at a duck, and another boy swinging a stick at a peacock. She ran outside and grabbed the stick from the boy, yelling, "You're outta here!" As she talked briefly about the problem with two adult chaperones, another boy stood at the edge of the pond with his leg cocked, ready to kick a duck. She ran over and yanked him by the arm from a four-foot drop-off--to prevent him from falling in, she would later testify. One of the chaperones, the mother of a classmate, claimed Rogers had assaulted the child and scared the rest of the kids. The mother of the child would make no complaint, and neither would the teacher, who was the other woman supervising the children that day. But one angry mother was enough. When Rogers arrived at work June 2, Melton, standing next to his right-hand man, John King, handed her a termination letter.
"You need to sign this," he said.
She refused. He told her she had 20 minutes to get off the property.
"This is bullshit!" yelled Rogers. She spent her last 20 minutes at Samuell Farm feeding the animals.
She took her fight to City Hall and appealed her termination to the assistant park director, Ralph Mendez, who denied her claim. She then appealed Mendez's decision to the park board, which convened a three-member tribunal to look into the matter.
The park board decided they needed to speak to the teacher, Nancy Armstrong, before rendering a decision. Her January 11 testimony conflicted, in part, with the disturbed mother's. And, Armstrong admitted, "I think [the boy] wasn't harmed physically." Yes, the children were frightened, but mostly because "they were going to get in trouble back at school."
Though the allegations were weak, the board decided to demote Rogers. She was reassigned to the animal hospital at the Dallas Zoo, with a clause restricting her from contact with children. Rogers wasn't satisfied, but the city refused to let her prosecute her appeal any further. Both Melton and Mendez refuse to comment on Rogers' demotion, saying it's a personnel matter and confidential. Of course, that hasn't stopped Rogers from speaking out.
"Doug wanted me out," she says. "[My demotion] was based upon false allegations to begin with...Judgments and decisions about my very future were being made based on lies, cover-ups, and deceptions."
Almost immediately after being fired, Rogers asked whether she could continue her volunteer work at the RWRC. Melton said no--she was not permitted on the farm. Steve Culp, a longtime rehab volunteer, took on most of Rogers' duties.
The El Nino-driven heat wave of 1998 was beginning to kick in, and the animals soon began dying. The first was an obese rabbit, which suffered hemorrhaged kidneys during a heatstroke in June. Culp claims that during each day of the summer, he was finding five to eight farm fowl dead--chickens, turkeys, peacocks, ducks, geese, everything. "And that's not counting the ones I've seen Dale run over," says Culp. "I pick up probably 30 a year. He honks once but keeps on going." Culp learned the farm well, driving his truck over most of the acreage as he laid out feed for the migratory birds that fly there each year. He'd see dozens of bales of rotting hay and found it suspicious that city dump trucks pulled into the farm's back gates full of concrete and asphalt and left empty.
Yet Doug Melton claims the dumping problem is not a current one: "The park department, over the years, was bringing trash in, even before the farm was programmatic in 1980." He admits he knew of the existence of the dumping sites, but says he is too understaffed to deal with it. "The problem areas are on our minds, but we already have so much to do with the people and the kids and the animals."
When Rogers' replacement, Shannon Grhard, joined the farm staff in September, she began keeping a log of dead and injured animals: a total of two ducks, two chickens, and a turkey from September through November.
"And what about the ones they're not reporting?" asks Culp, pointing to an area near the creek speckled with animal bones.
When horseback-riding concessionaire Robert Brunson made a routine visit to the farm in November, he stumbled on a pony with no water in one of his pens. When he and one of his trail-ride employees entered the pen, they found another horse lying in the corner, dead. Brunson says he didn't own either horse, and Melton refused to give him an explanation of where they came from. The next day, when he returned, both the dead horse and the live one were gone. No animals were reported dead or injured in November, and there have been no records of any horse deaths or carcass disposals since August.