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From California, a Note of Concern Sent to City Council Regarding Dallas Zoo Transfer

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On Wednesday, the Dallas City Council will more than likely vote to approve turning over management of the Dallas Zoo to the Dallas Zoological Society -- and, more specifically, its management arm, Dallas Zoo Management, Inc. Further details concerning the transfer of power can be found in Item No. 9 on the agenda's addendum. Chief among the reasons for the hand-over, which will begin October 1 (the start of FY2009-2010) and run for at least 25 years: It's expected to save the city $4.75 million during the coming fiscal year. But, notes the Wednesday agenda, there are other reasons for the handover:

The City of Dallas ("City") through the Park and Recreation Board and Department has successfully contracted with non-profit entities to manage facilities with a very specific target audience and mission, such as the Dallas Arboretum and the Trinity River Audubon Center. The City holds similar contracts for the management of cultural institutions including the Dallas Museum of Art, The African American Museum, and The Museum of Science and History. Contracts exist for the private-nonprofit management of Municipal zoos in most major cities across the country, a few of which include Fort Worth, Houston, Cincinnati, Seattle and St. Louis. The City Council has set a goal for the Zoo to be a "top tier zoo" within five years.

But at least one animal-rights group is skeptical of the move: Suzanne Roy, program director of In Defense of Animals, forwarded to Unfair Park a missive she sent to Dallas City Council members, in which IDoA lays out four problems it has with the proposal, at least as it's been presented so far. Chief among the issues: the city's turning over to DZS complete ownership of the animals, and concern over access to medical records at the zoo. I've left a message for Zoo spokesman Sean Greene. But, after the jump, the letter sent to council.


1. Proposal is being rushed through without proper vetting: Sweetheart deal for Dallas Zoological Society (DZS); bad deal for Dallas citizens.

According to news reports, the Dallas City Council is set to vote on a proposed Dallas Zoo Management Agreement next week. However there is no item as yet on the Council agenda for the August 12 meeting and no apparent information available on this major venture, save for a PowerPoint presentation by the DZS.

Based on news reports, this venture appears to have been worked out behind closed doors during City Council's July hiatus. It appears to be a sweetheart deal for the zoological society, but not in the best interest of the citizens of Dallas. The city of Dallas will be "giving away the store" -- personal property, the animal collection, use of a revenue-generating facility and an unspecified sum in city dedicated funds. The value of this giveaway is not quantified in the presentation.

In exchange the city is getting a modest reduction in the amount of funding it commits to the zoo (31 percent less in the first three years, but thereafter 11 just percent less than it is currently paying). In other words, the City will be giving away and lending for free millions of dollars in assets but will still be required to pay $11 million to $14 million per year to run the zoo. And it will be locked into this contract for a term of 25 years.

Most importantly the city will be giving up oversight, accountability, transparency and its ability to set policy for this venerable public institution. It's a bad deal for the taxpayers.

2. Giveaway of the animal collection.

Problem: In transferring "ownership" the city will be giving away a valuable asset and abdicating responsibility for the animals it currently "owns." Under the terms of the proposed Zoo Management Agreement, the City will no longer be able to ensure their adequate care and welfare.

Discussion: The Dallas Zoo Management Agreement power point presentation wrongly states that transfer of animal ownership is a requirement for Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) accreditation. This is false. There is no such AZA requirement. Indeed many zoos that are city-owned (including the animals) and managed under contract by zoological societies maintain AZA accreditation. Two examples:

  • The San Francisco Zoo: The City owns the land, buildings and animal collection and contracts with the San Francisco Zoological Society to manage the zoo. The San Francisco Zoo is AZA accredited.
  • The Kansas City Zoo. The city owns the land, buildings, and animal collection and contracts with the zoological society (Friends of the Zoo) to manage the zoo. The Kansas City Zoo is AZA accreditation.
Please note that similar threats about loss of AZA accreditation have been used in other cities to thwart city council involvement in zoo operations, particularly with regard to animal welfare.

Beyond the issue of accreditation is the city's moral and legal obligation to ensure the well-being of the animals it currently "owns." By relinquishing ownership, the City is giving up control over their care, their living conditions and their ultimate disposition (i.e., how and where they are sold or otherwise disposed of by the zoo).

The city will also be forfeiting its ability to set zoo policy, ensure accountability and transparency, and guarantee proper animal care and well-being. Since the animals have no ability to advocate for themselves, it is essential that citizens have access to information about their care and treatment. Without these mechanisms, there can be no independent oversight of zoo operations, no way of advocating for the proper care and treatment of animals, no way of assessing whether such proper care and treatment is being delivered.

Solution: The City of Dallas must maintain ownership of the animal collection, just as it intends to maintain ownership of the land and the physical exhibits at the zoo. This will not impact the zoo's ability to maintain AZA accreditation. This will positively impact the citizens' ability to ensure that animal welfare is a priority at the Dallas Zoo. And it will allow the city to fulfill its moral and legal obligation to these animals, who are completely at our mercy.

3. Access to records.

Problem: Privatization of zoo management and ownership of the animal collection removes access to information about zoo operations and animal care now protected by the Texas Public Information Act.

Discussion: This will prevent citizens from accessing information about zoo animal care, finances and other operations, yet citizens will still be responsible for contributing $14 million per year for zoo operations. Public access to records has been critical in holding the zoo accountable for its care and treatment of animals, among other issues. Limiting access to these records would seriously impede the citizen's right to know about operations of this public entity.

Solution: The management agreement should include a provision requiring the DZS/DZM to provide the public with the same access to information as was required when the zoo was a public entity -- a provision requiring public access to zoo information regarding animal care, operations, financial management, etc.

Following are two examples of zoo management agreements which guarantee public access to zoo information and records.

Woodland Park Zoo, Seattle. City owns the land and buildings. Woodland Park Zoological Society owns animals and manages zoo through contract with city.

3.3.2 City Documents Until agreed otherwise between the Superintendent and WPZS as provided in this Section 3.3.2, the City will retain custody of all City Documents. To allow WPZS to operate and manage the Zoo while the City retains that custody, the City will provide WPZS access to City Documents to the extent permitted by law.

After the Effective Date of this Agreement, the City Records Manager shall propose and seek applicable state agency approval of a records retention schedule for City.

Documents that meets federal, state, and local requirements. After state approval of a records retention schedule for City Documents, the Superintendent and WPZS shall negotiate an agreement for transferring custody of City Documents to WPZS to the extent permitted by law. That agreement shall, at a minimum, condition the transfer of custody as follows, and shall hold WPZS liable to the City for failure to comply with WPZS's obligations under the agreement.

WPZS shall make the City Documents available to the Superintendent and other City designees immediately upon request; WPZS shall follow the Superintendent's instructions for responding to public records disclosure requests; WPZS shall comply with the records retention schedule for City Documents and make City Documents available for purposes of compliance audits. Custody of City Documents shall not be transferred to WPZS until the City Records Manager has completed training of WPZS and Parks Department records liaisons. (Woodland Park Zoo, Operations and Management Agreement, December 17, 2001, Section 3.3.2)

San Francisco Zoo: City owns buildings, land and animals; contracts with zoological society to manage.

Public Access to Records and Information.

SFZS (Zoological Society) shall provide public access to information concerning the operation of the Zoo to the same extent that such information would have been available to the public pursuant to local ordinances if the Department had continued to operate the Zoo in the same manner as it did prior to the date of this Agreement. In addition, SFZS shall comply with all state and federal laws, rules and regulations that govern access by the public to records and information, including without limitation the California Public Records Act (California Government Code Secs. 6250 et seq.) Without limiting foregoing, SFZS further agrees that (a) minutes shall be taken at each meeting of its Board of Director's, and that the minutes of those meetings shall be considered public documents available for public inspection in accordance with the Public Records Act, and (b) all information concerning the status of all animals exhibited or otherwise housed or cared for at the Zoo shall be deemed public information subject to public inspection under the Public Records Act. (San Francisco Zoo Lease and Management Agreement, Section 16.2, page 22-23)

3. Term of lease -- The proposal is for a 25 year lease, with 5-year renewal options thereafter requiring only approval from the City Manager and Park and Recreation Department Director.

Problem: This management agreement would lock the city into a contract for 25 years -- that would be difficult to reverse.

Discussion: As stated above, this deal is being rushed through City Council, and it has not been properly vetted, nor has the public been given the opportunity to review and comment on the proposal. The city cannot anticipate problems that may arise with this new venture, and comparisons to other cities do not suffice. A long-term contract benefits only the DZS it is not in the interest of the city of Dallas and the citizens who are the owners of this property. There is no downside to a shorter-term contract, and indeed periodic review and affirmation would be an important safeguard for a public entity that is valued by the community.

Solution: Initial lease of 3 years, to be reviewed and affirmed by City Council, with subsequent 5-year leases requiring City Council approval.

4. Oversight

Problem: Oversight only for major capitol improvements, a term that is undefined in the presentation. No oversight mechanisms are included for ongoing zoo operations, nor do there appear to be any reporting requirements.

Discussion: This proposal turns the management and operation of the Dallas Zoo entirely over to the DZS Board of Directors, even though the city will continue to fund the zoo. The citizens of Dallas and their elected representatives are left out of this equation. Please remember that zoological society board membership is exclusive -- members are often chosen for their financial ability and are frequently required to make substantial annual donations. But wealth does not qualify individuals to run a zoo, nor does it ensure that the citizens' wishes will be represented in the operation of this public entity.

The city must maintain oversight over zoo operations, particularly since it will be contributing nearly $14 million a year for over 20 years.

Solution: Establish a zoo oversight committee that includes members of the City Council (or designated representative), members of the Park and Recreation Board, and representatives from animal welfare organizations.

Require regular meetings (quarterly, 8 meetings/calendar year, etc.).

Establish regular reporting requirements on zoo operations and finances, including animal acquisitions, disposition proposals, identification of long and short-term goals for facility and animal management and capitol improvement.

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