USDA Surprises Zoo With Another Elephant Inspection

Tembo and Sunda at the Topeka Zoo

TOPEKA, Kan. (WIBW) - A complaint from an animal advocacy group triggered a surprise inspection Thursday at the Topeka Zoo.

Zoo director Brendan Wiley said Friday that inspectors from the USDA met with zoo officials and staff, focusing on the elephant exhibit. He says the California-based group In Defense of Animals filed a complaint with the USDA Sept. 21, saying the zoo's two elephants, Tembo and Sunda, are not compatible and should not be housed together.

In Defense of Animals led recent efforts to have the elephants taken out of the zoo and moved to a sanctuary. The debate culminated in a vote from the Topeka City Council this week to support the decision of zoo officials, which is to keep the elephants and make improvements to the exhibit.

Wiley says the USDA issued no report at the end of the visit and did not indicate when they might make a response. He says about half of Thursday's inspection focused on the planned improvements for the zoo’s elephant program.

Wiley points out the USDA is obligated to follow up on every complaint it receives.

The city is currently appealing a citation stemming from a late-August inspection that the zoo violated the Animal Welfare Act in its care of the elephants.

Wiley says the zoo has seen eight different USDA inspectors during 10 different inspections over the past three years. He says a zoo would normally see three to four inspections with one to three different inspectors over that time frame.

“Our relationship with our inspectors is really good. Every inspection is an opportunity to learn and to share,” said Zoo Director, Brendan Wiley. “Our concern is how do we get our past to stay in the past in the eyes of our regulators? This is our challenge. Our goal is to be the model that the USDA wants other zoos to follow.”

Additional background from the Topeka Zoo:

By the end of 2009, the zoo had found itself in rocky territory with both its regulatory agency, the USDA, and its accrediting agency, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. After a special inspection by AZA in 2009, dramatic management changes were made at the zoo. In June of 2010, the zoo learned the USDA was investigating non-compliant items going back to 2006. In December of 2011, the zoo received the official complaint based on that investigation and as of yet has not been able to reach an understanding with the regulatory agency.