Paul Dyer Explains the Reasons for Keeping Jenny at the Dallas Zoo

I just spoke at great length with Paul Dyer, director of the Park and Recreation Department, about his decision to keep Jenny at the Dallas Zoo, rather than move her to the sanctuary in Tennessee or the drive-through zoo in Mexico. He says he made the decision for several reasons: He and zoo officials were worried that moving the 32-year-old Jenny, who has a long history of medical and psychological problems, would be too traumatic for her. Also, he says the zoo is expediting plans to bring Jenny a companion, both of whom will live in the $40-million, 11-acre Africa Savanna habitat, which Dyer says he can get opened sooner than the projected date of January 2011.

"We've had a number of considerations in this process, one of which was evaluating Jenny and her health and condition," Dyer tells Unfair Park. "And the more we looked it, it was apparent any move might be dangerous, particularly with her condition."

Dyer says the city does not yet have a companion for Jenny lined up, but "we have several elephants we're negotiating to bring here." He also says the zoo has "compressed the schedule" for building the Africa Savanna project, which is funded with money from the 2006 bond election and is supposed to be able to hold four elephants, six giraffes, two warthogs, six lions, six "wild dogs" and other "hoofed stock." Says Dyer, "We're hoping to open it sometime in the next 18-20 months."

"There's risk associated with moving any animal who's up in years," Dyer says, "and that was part of our consideration. It's pretty exciting she gets to stay here, where she grew up. She's stable, adjusting after Keke's death, and we're excited she gets to stay."

Dyer insists that despite an earlier announcement that Jenny was to be sent to the Africam Safari Park in Mexico, it was never a done deal. Indeed, he now calls the zoo's earlier declaration "unfortunate, because Africam was the first offer, after which I said, 'Let's evaluate this and not just take the first offer.'"

He then points to the Cotton Bowl's $50-million rehab as proof the city can get the new zoo exhibit up and running earlier than expected. It's a process called "design-build," he says, which involves pairing the architects and construction firm and essentially allowing them to act as a single entity.

"That firm then starts with a preliminary design," he says, "and halfway through it you can say, 'This is what the footprint looks like,' and then mobilize the forces and begin work on the infrastructure. That's how we could begin work during the State Fair last year, but completed most of it over the last eight months. And this is not nearly as complicated as the Cotton Bowl, because it's basically a containment area, landscaping, water features and holding areas for animals -- including giraffes, elephants and the others in the Savanna habitat."

But, given the uproar over Jenny's scheduled move to Mexico and the attendant discussion concerning the fate of zoos kept in elephants, did Dyer ever consider just shutting down the zoo's elephant exhibit altogether?

"It was never a consideration, because we have a substantial amount invested in the African Savanna exhibit and generous support from the Dallas Zoological Society," Dyer says. "Elephants have always been in our future, and that was not a consideration. ... Our keepers have been with her for many years, they know her, she's and very stable now. In years past we went to protective contact, which is a new way to train an animal, and she's now very acclimated to positive-reinforcement training, and she knows the keepers, so this is the best decision for her."

He's "very hopeful" that the decision will appease the Concerned Citizens for Jenny. But from the looks of the comments in the earlier item, that's not likely to happen -- and he may have also just infuriated those who'd like to see the city rid of elephants altogether, either for ethical or fiscal reasons. (It's not cheap to keep an elephant, much less two or four, and City Manager Mary Suhm is recommending the Dallas Zoo close one day a week to tighten the 2008-'09 budget currently being considered by the city council.)

"Whatever concerns they had about Mexico, hopefully this lets them know she's happy here, she's made real progress, why not keep her here," Dyer says. "We can be assured we'll have access to her and that her life will be a quality life from here on out. And I was surprised [about the fight over Jenny], but after we stepped back and surveyed it, most people's concerns were: What happens in Mexico? That, in people's minds, was an unknown, and that conjured up pictures and thoughts and other issues, even though they have good regulatory process there under the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

"Obviously we were anxious to get this settled, because a lot of folks were worried about what would happen to Jenny," Dyer says. "We were too. We wanted to make sure she had the best final destination, and we decided that was us. That's the most comforting thing to all of us." --Robert Wilonsky

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky