Major staffing changes put Niabi Zoo in the spotlight

"Some of these issues have been going on for years," said the Zoo Director.

By Ashley Richmond | arichmond@whbf.com

Published 09/28 2016 10:19PM

Updated 09/28 2016 10:19PM

Niabi Zoo is running shorthanded after half of its animal handlers resigned.
 
Two left unexpectedly this week, two more moved onto jobs at other zoos, and one will leave next month for another job. That has the zoo operating with only five of its normal 10 full-time animal handlers.
 
"Some of these issues have been going on for years," said Zoo Director Lee Jackson.
 
Issues at the zoo in Coal Valley, IL are nothing new. The zoo lost it's accreditation in 2012, and the loss of some animals in the past few years has made headlines.
 
Now, the spotlight is back on after five of the zoo's animal handlers resign. Until more handlers can be hired, temporary helpers will be brought in from nearby zoos. Jackson says one of the handlers who left unexpectedly had expressed some concerns a few days before leaving.
 
"Things haven't moved fast enough for some folks. Things are moving too fast for others. Change is difficult and I certainly understand that, but change has to happen for the zoo to move forward," said Jackson.
 
Moving forward is exactly what leaders at the zoo's governing body hope to do. Jeff Craver is the Rock Island County Forest Preserve Director. He tells us about 200,000 people visit Niabi every year, and despite the recent staffing issues, he says the zoo is still doing well. Jackson points to the zoo's finances as proof.
 
"The zoo is in better financial condition than it probably ever has been . The zoo is operating in the black," said Jackson.
 
Jackson says says getting the zoo's accreditation back is a top priority. That'll take fixing some infrastructure problems, like putting up newer fences and improving some of the larger animals' exhibits. Families visiting the zoo agree, changes do need to be made, but they don't think those will make or break their experience.
 
"The lions I feel like, they they didn't seem like they had much to do. But everything else I feel was decent," said visitor Amanda Neubert.
 
"We like it. We look forward to the stuff they're going to be bringing in in the next few years," said visitor Chris Page.
 
"We're moving forward with some plans and some great ideas. So I think the next 3-5 years, you're going to see kind of a renaissance of the Niabi Zoo," said Jackson.
 
Next month, Jackson plans to release his 90-day assessment of the zoo. It includes his feedback on what needs to change. Some new animals and exhibits coming to the zoo next year will be announced, as well.
 
Niabi Zoo will close for the season on October 31st. Jackson says no date has been set for reopening in the spring.

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