20 year Vet Faces Unjustified Termination from Oregon Zoo | 101 KXL

20 year Vet Faces Unjustified Termination from Oregon Zoo

Written by FM News 101 KXL on May 7, 2014
VetFired-flipper

Story from Oregonlive.com

A veterinarian employed at the Oregon Zoo in Portland for more than 20 years said he was fired Monday under vague circumstances. “They said they no longer had confidence in my ability to lead the veterinary department,” Mitch Finnegan, the zoo’s senior veterinarian, said in an interview.

Finnegan pressed Metro staff for reasoning behind his termination, but wasn’t given any answers. Finnegan’s departure and that of zoo director Kim Smith was announced later in the day.

Finnegan said he and Smith both met with Teri Dresler, the general manager of visitor venues at Metro who oversees the zoo, and someone from human resources at the Metro office in Northeast Portland Monday afternoon. The two waited together, he said, but were called inside the office separately.

Dresler is taking over as interim director at the zoo. Smith reported directly to Dresler.

A day after the firing, the question of what happened to prompt the shake-up at the operation that draws more than 1.6 million visitors a year and cares for more than 2,000 animals remained largely unanswered.

Metro spokesperson Jim Middaugh declined to provide details, saying it is against Metro’s policy to comment on personnel issues. Middaugh did say there are no severance agreements with Smith or Finnegan yet.

Smith took over the top zoo job in 2010, at a time when Metro officials were taking a more active role in running the zoo.

Portland-area voters in 2008 had approved a $125 million bond measure to expand and improve zoo facilities. In 2009, Metro auditors issued a scathing report that found zoo construction projects over the five previous years had been plagued by cost overruns, delays and disjointed management. In general, the audit suggested the zoo had grown too large for its governance structure.

Tony Vecchio, who had run the zoo for 11 years, left to run the Jacksonville, Fla., zoo, a few months before the audit’s release. Smith was his replacement.

Finnegan said he didn’t always agree with Smith, but that he respected her as a leader.

“I got along well with Kim,” Finnegan said. “She put her money where her mouth was and worked hard to get where she thought the zoo should go.”

Finnegan’s career at the zoo was a “20-year roller coaster ride,” he said. “I got to learn and do things that I wouldn’t have imagined doing in my life, and I felt fortunate every day that I got the opportunity to do it.”

Phil Prewett, who left the Oregon Zoo after 27 years as a zoo keeper in 2011, said Finnegan is one of few zoo veterinarians worthy of praise.

“He is an incredibly gifted, motivated, talented man,” Prewett said. “For the life of me I cannot perceive what caused some fools to fire him.”

Anne Warner, whose job as conservation manager at the Oregon Zoo was eliminated in 2011, said she wasn’t shocked that Smith lost her job as director.

Leading the zoo is “a hard job,” she said. “You’re stuck between Metro and the zoo and it’s a very difficult position to be in.”

The zoo has undergone a lot of change in recent years, Warner said. A lot of people resigned, retired or were terminated after Smith took over as director in 2010, she said, which left the remaining staff uncertain and unhappy.

She said she hasn’t heard any details from friends about why Smith and Finnegan were terminated.

Warner said she’s noticed that Metro has become increasingly involved in the zoo’s day to day operations, but isn’t familiar with the regional government’s plan for the zoo.

“It’s a great big mystery,” she said, “and certainly even more now.”

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