Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Edinburgh Zoo's EGM from a member's point of view

Edinburgh Zoo's EGM from a member's point of view

It's been a turbulent year for Edinburgh Zoo, with scandals, investigations and now the executive chair's resignation. Will pandas solve the problems? Guest blogger and Leith resident Yonmei reports back from the zoo's emergency general meeting

I went to the Edinburgh Zoo EGM on Thursday 14 May not sure what to expect. I've been going to the Zoo since before I was ten - one of my tenth birthday presents was a child's membership in the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, which founded Edinburgh Zoo in 1913. (My grandmother, also Edinburgh-born, remembered being taken as a small child to see the very first penguin hatched in captivity, which I was able to tell her must have been when she was seven years old.) People all ages still love visiting Edinburgh Zoo.

I haven't visited the Zoo in several months - the severe weather in December and January, work overflowing into weekends - but no one interested in the Zoo could have helped noticing that they were having problems. I'd heard that the heavy snow and ice had made some of the steep paths so treacherous that the Zoo had had to close for a few days, last year and the year before, cutting down gate revenue. I'd heard that there were going to be staff redundancies, that two senior managers - including Gary Wilson, acting CEO - had been suspended for unspecified "allegations", that a third senior manager had been fired, and that OSCR was investigating (the RZSS is a registered charity).

I'd heard that the Zoo planned to sell off some of its land, I'd noticed that we were seeing an increasing number of empty enclosures, and I'd heard that the RZSS were planning to sell the Zoo to Parques Reunidos, a company that runs entertainment parks. And the pandas had been the cover pic for the latest Lifelinks. I wanted, like most of the other 500 or so members there that night, to find out more.


My connection with the RZSS over four decades was paltry compared to some members there who declared fifty-five year memberships, Zoo Volunteer status, former staff members (no one currently employed by the Zoo was allowed to attend) and one former board member who had flown in from the US specifically to attend: and one man who identified himself as "just a dad", who'd joined because his children loved the Zoo (and membership is the only way an ordinary person can possibly afford to go regularly - at least, that was why my parents had given me my first membership card).

We heard at the meeting a very detailed and very thorough defense of the Board of Trustees' actions as first Gary Wilson, then Iain Valentine, had to be suspended from their jobs because an anonymous dossier of allegations against them had been sent to the Board and to Lothian and Borders Police, and then, further leaks were made to the media, still from an anonymous source. As far as that went, I think the board seems to have acted creditably and correctly.

But what the chair, Donald Emslie, seemed to have not realised is that the members concern for the Zoo extended far beyond simply what these senior managers were accused of doing.

Visitor numbers are down. The Zoo has an impressive front entrance, but after you get inside it looks increasingly shabby and in need of repair. The Zoo has a breeding pair of Red River Hogs (listed by IUCN as of Least Concern) and it appears that the Zoo's plan for dealing with their breeding is to have the "surplus" hogs put to sleep.

The popular lorikeet exhibit Rainbow Landings had to be shut down. Apparently the sealions, who have lived in the stone-ringed pond at the entrance to the Zoo for as long as I can remember, are to go because the Zoo cannot afford a salination plant and other necessary improvements for their pond. But £700,000 is to be spent on improving the front entrance and expanding the shop.

And the solution, according to the board, was to get pandas. We were told at length how having a panda exhibit would mean massively increased visitor numbers, thus resolving all of Edinburgh Zoo's problems.


David Windmill, the previous chief executive, had retired in November 2010, having given notice in September. In October 2010, it was announced that many Zoo staff were going to be made redundant. The board of trustees had decided, they explained to us at the EGM, that as the Zoo was going to undergo restructuring, and as they as yet did not know exactly how the "restructured" zoo would work, they would not look for a permanent CEO: instead they would pay a headhunting agency £3,000 to find an interim CEO for one year. On 28 February, Gary Wilson was appointed acting CEO and on 1 March, the dossier of allegations about him was sent anonymously to the board and to the police.

Mr Wilson said he believed he knew who had made the anonymous allegations.

The timing and the substance of the allegations suggests very strongly to me a disgruntled member of staff. Someone who saw Gary Wilson driving an expensive car, building an extension to his house, while other members of staff were being made redundant. While no one can condone or support this kind of action - I'd like very much to know what the pay gap is between RZSS management and the lowest-paid keepers and other support staff. A friend who was a keeper at London Zoo told me that being a keeper is not something you do for the pay - pay's low, hours are long, working conditions can be unavoidably crappy - quite literally. You work for the animals, she said: because the job itself is something you love. Everything I heard at the EGM suggests to me (and to other members I spoke to) that at Edinburgh Zoo, staff morale is in the tank.


John Barrett, former MP for Edinburgh West, asked on 10 May:

"Is the zoo being deliberately run down in order to make it look like the only option for the future is for the park to be sold?"

We were told at the meeting that the deal with Parques Reunidos was not at the moment being considered because of the feeling of the membership. We were also told that the deal with China for two pandas was definitely on, and that apparently the board feel this will fix all the financial problems due to falling visitor numbers.

Donald Emslie spoke of meeting with the Vice Premier of China, Li Keqiang and Nick Clegg in January .............................


Edinburgh Zoo's EGM from a member's point of view Edinburgh


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