Joe Harvey had just arrived at his job at the Dallas Zoo in early September when a co-worker called him over to look inside a cardboard box.
"She was kind of like, 'You are not going to believe what I found here,'" Harvey says.
She was right. He didn't believe it. At the center of the box, a dozen baby chicks that were supposed to have been "humanely" gassed the day before and then frozen as carnivore food were huddled and shivering, barely clinging to life.
Incredibly to Harvey, the chicks had survived the night in the zoo's subzero walk-in freezer, where it's difficult to remain for more than a few minutes without heavy clothing and where food becomes "hard as rock," one former worker says. A dozen other chicks, ones that had frozen to death, surrounded the survivors.
Harvey put the dozen live chicks in a warm spot and gave them food and water. He wanted to put a heat lamp on them, but he didn't have one. Ironically, just the day before, all of those same chicks, both the dead ones and the living ones, were spending blissful days and nights basking in the warmth of a heat lamp and in the hands of adoring children at the petting zoo. The chicks had outgrown their cuteness when they were sent to die in the gas chamber.
"I decided that the surviving chicks would not be gassed," Harvey says. "They had lived through a night of living hell and would not be subjected to the indignation of being killed after that. I wasn't going to allow it."
Harvey, who grew up on a farm and has "no out-there issues" about eating chickens, says he first took the live chicks home and then sent them to a farm where they will be allowed to grow up. Zoo officials learned of Harvey's chicken run a couple of weeks later, and they weren't happy about it. They fired him. They said he took city property.
"I wasn't axed for insubordination or lack of initiative," he says. "In fact, I was a pretty darned good employee. So what could have caused my untimely dismissal from the job that I loved? It seems that the reason for my discharge is the fact that I have a conscience. I saved 12 baby chicks from being gassed, after surviving all night in the deep freezer."
City officials say they didn't fire Harvey. They just didn't re-hire him as a temporary employee. They also say they didn't close the chick exhibit during the last couple of weeks because of the incident Harvey describes or another, more recent incident in which all but one of two dozen doomed baby chicks starved to death in the gas chamber awaiting execution (for three days).
"He was not terminated," says Pam Deutsch, director of marketing for the Dallas Zoo and Aquarium. "He was released from his duties at the zoo. The city is free to assign him to a different position, and questions about that have to come from civil service."
Besides "reassigning" Harvey to the unemployment line, the city also suspended three zoo workers for five days for something connected to the incident. Deutsch says the city can't disclose the details of the disciplinary action but says the workers are appealing their suspensions.
"We think that the chicks were improperly euthanized. After they are euthanized they go into the freezer, and some of them weren't dead," she says. "They weren't all put in there to freeze to death."
Harvey disagrees. He says the worker who put the chicks into the freezer admitted that he did not try to gas the chicks first. He just put them directly in there, Harvey says.
"I think probably just sheer laziness because it actually takes some effort to drag the machine out and put them in there and turn on the gas. It's much easier for a cruel person to just throw them in the freezer," he says. "The person admitted it the next day when we confronted him about it. He was like, 'Well, you said not to gas them.' And I was like, 'You certainly have the intelligence to know I didn't mean to freeze them alive.'"
Karen Davis, president of United Poultry Concerns, a national nonprofit animal advocacy organization based in Machipongo, Virginia, says it's bad enough that the zoo used the chicks to attract paying customers under the guise of education. Freezing the chicks just demonstrates how little the zoo actually cares for these creatures, she says.
"Putting these baby birds who crave and need warmth into a freezer is kind of the ultimate cruelty," Davis says. "I think that putting them in a freezer is just part of the general total lack of respect for or empathy with the lives of these birds. I think that when you are using creatures in this totally exploitative and cynical way in order to promote business, it leads to an atrocity as this exemplifies. Somebody putting them into a freezer and then when somebody passionate discovers it, then that person ends up being sacrificed, fired."
Davis says it's good that the zoo closed the baby chick exhibit but that the practice of keeping predatory birds and other creatures in cages just so people can look at them is wrong.
"You've got a fundamental problem in the very nature of the zoo," she says.
Harvey says the city didn't treat him or the woman who found the chicks in the freezer and gas chamber fairly. (The woman quit after discovering the sole survivor in the gas chamber.) Harvey says he was set up as a fall guy.
"The new guy is always an easy scapegoat...I suppose I was to be simply swept under the rug while the whole disgusting mess was wrapped up in a tidy bow," he says. "No, I am too intelligent a person not to know that I have been railroaded for the simple act of showing compassion to 12 fuzzy chicks."
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