Zoo Deaths in Chicago Prompt Public Protests

Hundreds have been gathering outside Chicago's Lincoln Park Zoo to protest a recent string of animal deaths there. The protesters are calling for a criminal investigation. Three endangered monkeys died following their recent move to a new exhibit. Two elephants, two gorillas and a camel have also died since last fall.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

In many cities around the country, zoos are under new scrutiny. In a moment, we'll take a look at the latest thinking about zoos.

But first, we go to Chicago, where three endangered monkeys at the Lincoln Park Zoo died of unknown causes last week. All told, nine animals have died or been euthanized since late 2003. Now the Lincoln Park Zoo is being investigated by the US Department of Agriculture and the state's attorney of Cook County. Chicago Public Radio's Diantha Parker reports.

(Soundbite of children)

DIANTHA PARKER reporting:

On a recent sunny weekend, Lincoln Park's packed monkey house doesn't look or sound anything like a zoo in crisis. A bunch of kindergartners are pressed against the glass separating them from what the zoo calls one of its success stories, a one-armed male gibbon swinging from branch to branch. The gibbon's other arm was recently amputated at the elbow after he broke it reaching through the mesh of his outdoor habitat. There's now a black stump extending from his shoulder, which he occasionally scratches. Zoo officials say gibbons will chew off casts, so amputation was the best alternative.

The kids seem to understand, and why the gibbons' neighbors in the monkey house, three Francois langurs, are missing. They were found dead in their enclosure Tuesday and Wednesday. Visitors confront this message written in marker on a white board: We are very saddened by the sudden death of our langurs. We thank everyone for their support during this difficult time.

The deaths stunned many here already upset over the loss of the zoo's last remaining elephant on May 1st. She was euthanized after becoming ill while being moved to another zoo in Utah. The zoo's other two elephants died in house, one of a rare lung infection last October, the other of complications from old age in January. Lilly Jones(ph) is the kindergartners' teacher.

Ms. LILLY JONES (Kindergarten Teacher): I told them that the elephants is not here anymore, they're gone to heaven. We don't know what had happened with them, but they got very sick, and they passed away, so that's how we explain it to them.

PARKER: But others have not been so understanding.

Group of Protesters (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals): (In unison) Hey, hey! Ho, ho! Kevin Bell has got to go! Hey, hey!

PARKER: People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals have staged several loud protests at the zoo, the latest this past Sunday, which attracted a few hundred protesters calling for Kevin Bell, the zoo's president, to resign. Along with the elephants and the langurs, two gorillas and a camel have also died here since 2004. The director of Lincoln Park's board, Jay Proops, says Bell's management is not the problem, which is why, he says, he rejected Bell's tendered resignation last week.

Mr. JAY PROOPS (Director, Lincoln Park Zoo Board): I think it's just totally irresponsible for people to call for his resignation based upon the fact that they would just like to hang somebody without any shred of evidence that he's done anything wrong. And I'm not going to stand for that under my watch.

PARKER: But Proops acknowledges that whatever the cause, animal deaths make for terrible PR. Last Thursday, officials from Lincoln Park asked two entities to investigate the entire facility: the US Department of Agriculture and the American Zoo and Aquarium Association, which accredits zoos. Bill Foster is the AZA's director.

Mr. BILL FOSTER (Director, American Zoo and Aquarium Association): The fact that it is a different species, different circumstances, different entities kind of shares with me that it's an unfortunate cluster of circumstances that have brought attention to the situation.

PARKER: Foster, who is also director of the Birmingham Zoo, does say the deaths are troubling, but that Bell has been a proactive director. He also notes the zoo's diversity. The on-staff veterinarians treat 210 species and close to 1,200 animals. None of those involved in the investigations will comment on them except to say they're ongoing. Meanwhile, attendance at the zoo remains strong, and visitors still pose for pictures outside the empty elephant enclosure. For NPR News, I'm Diantha Parker in Chicago.

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