© 2024 WGLT
A public service of Illinois State University
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

At Bloomington's Miller Park Zoo, a new commitment to transparency

Miller Park Zoo director Jay Pratte poses for a photo in front of the flamingo exhibit
Emily Bollinger
Jay Pratte is the director of Miller Park Zoo and has held the title since late 2022.

On a mid-July day, one of those hazy ones where wildfire smoke clouded the sky and dulled the sun, Jay Pratte was at work.

His mind, however, was split between two places.

There was, of course, work to do at Miller Park Zoo, where Pratte is now the director. There also was a dog at home in need of care — Sigmund — who'd recently gone to the veterinarian for health concerns. Pratte couldn't help but to remember the trauma of losing another beloved dog to illness very suddenly just a few years ago.

This story was personal to Pratte, but it's universal to anyone who has loved or cared for an animal in sickness and in health. And it's known especially well to people who make animal caregiving their job — like the staff at Miller Park Zoo.

Zoo entrance
WGLT file
The entrance to Miller Park Zoo in Bloomington.

"When we lose an animal, it's hard on everybody because we put so much time into them every day. This is what we do: We come in and care for them and try to make their lives better," Pratte said. "So, a loss hits us hard."

And over the past year, Miller Park Zoo has experienced several difficult losses.

In early 2022, Rilu, a snow leopard, died from complications that followed a COVID-19 infection. Then, in December, a red wolf died suddenly.

This year, the zoo's oldest snow leopard — Hima — died from an illness consistent with her age, followed by an 18-year-old DeBrazza monkey (Chumu) that lived three years longer than average for his species, and a Randall Lineback cow, Indigo, that eventually died after a bout with illness.

To outsiders, the deaths seemed strange, like they were stacking almost on top of each other.

Someone filed a Freedom of Information Act after the red wolf died, which Pratte said he "took quite personally."

"The city was like, 'Don't.' This is a vestige of previous leadership, a history where people weren't always completely open with... (a) loss or what happened," he said.

News releases about the zoo's losses started coming more frequently after Pratte took over, something he said was intentional, and not aimed at raising alarm.

"While our staff are attached, there are members of the public, there are visitors, there are people that may just only follow (us) on Facebook that love certain animals and get attached to them — their personalities, their stories," Pratte said. "My perception is it's the right thing to do — to share that with people."

'Earning the public's trust every day'

Don't call it a trend: Transparency is part of what the Association of Zoos and Aquariums has been pushing its members toward, according to CEO Dan Ashe.

Dan Ashe is the CEO of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
American Zoological Association
Dan Ashe is the CEO of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

Ashe called it telling "the whole story" of an animal — from birth to death to life in between.

"We've encouraged, and I think it's reflected across our member community, a spirit of transparency," Ashe said in an interview. "Our members are committed to lifetime care for the animals — and that does mean explaining to the public that, 'We've had an animal die and here's why they died.'"

The AZA is a nonprofit founded in 1924 that offers accreditation to zoos and aquariums across 46 states in the U.S. and 13 countries worldwide; Miller Park Zoo is among its smallest members. The AZA also helps members source different animals.

Ashe said this push toward an openness from zoos and aquariums is a pivot from past practices; part of these groups "recommitting ourselves that we owe it to the public — we have to earn the public's trust every day."

Where previous practices included waiting to "cloister that" kind of information, Ashe said it benefits more than just the public to know what is going on with zoo animals.

Like Pratte described, Ashe said anyone who's been a pet owner knows sickness and death come with the animal territory.

"It's an important thing for the animal keepers, too," he said. "Instead of trying to cloister what has happened, they need to be able to grieve it. They need to be able to talk about it because that's tough on them."

Pearl Yusuf poses for a photo in front of an animal enclosure at the Miller Park Zoo, in daytime
Emily Bollinger
Pearl Yusuf is Miller Park Zoo's curator, in charge of sourcing animals for the City of Bloomington's facility.

Pearl Yusuf has been the general curator for Miller Park Zoo for over a year and worked in zoos for decades. When an animal dies, she feels the loss, but she also feels a new sense of urgency for the animals left.

When a female flamingo's partner died, she said, she reached out to another agency and asked if another male was available.

"You're upset about the death. But I'm also upset about the one that I still have to take care of," she said. "So, that got the ball rolling right away."

There are rewarding parts to the job of zookeeping: Yusuf has been in the field for decades and one of MPZ's zookeepers, Erik Heinonen, has been at the city zoo for almost 20 years.

One of his favorite exhibits is the one with red wolves — a conservation effort aimed at bolstering the ranks of a species whose number dropped to just 14 in the 1970s.

"They're full of personality; we've had three or four litters since I've been here, so it's just something that makes you feel good about what you're doing," he said. "All of the hard work is actually helping species and then I get to talk to people about red wolves and do education."

Further changes

A dwarf Mongoose at the Miller Park Zoo.
Charlie Schlenker
A dwarf Mongoose at the Miller Park Zoo.

Pratte said he's been exploring options for bringing mental health resources into the work place so that "different people who want to cope, or handle grief, loss or compassion fatigue" have options.

"I want to ensure that all of our team members, not just those in animal care, have access to as many different resources as they can. But it is one of those things that you have to accept as part of the job — and part of rescuing dogs," he said, nodding to his own experiences with rescues.

Pratte said he's also working on "readjusting" some positions to make the workload easier for animal caretakers, who often spend the majority of the day doing what Yusuf called the "back-breaking work" of zookeeping, then face the data-recording part of their job afterwards. Pratte said after a review of the zoo's records prior to his arrival, "there have been kind of some holes."

"I want to look at new ways to do it: I don't just want to be like, 'Come to the zoo and pay us your money,'" he said. "We're going to look at new events, what's worked at other zoos, what's different? Can we improve and alter what we already offer?"

Lyndsay Jones is a reporter at WGLT. She joined the station in 2021. You can reach her at lljone3@ilstu.edu.