Friends with Benefits

According to their 2009 Annual Report (the most recent available), Friends Of the National Zoo raised $17.5M in “total support and revenue” during 2009. Of that, $1.4M went to the National Zoo and Smithsonian Institution. But FONZ support doesn’t end there.

Consider the response I received from a FONZ spokesperson when I inquired about their position on the Zoo’s decision to keep Nico Dauphine on board:

Thank you for contacting the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and FONZ regarding the allegations against Dr. Nico Dauphine, a postdoctoral research fellow based within the Migratory Bird Center. We take our role as the nation’s zoo very seriously and work hard to provide leadership in animal care, conservation science, education, and sustainability.

Animal care is one of the Zoo’s top priorities, and we appreciate when visitors share our passion and concern for our animals’ well-being. Please be assured that Dr. Dauphine’s research in no way jeopardizes animals, and the Smithsonian has taken appropriate temporary precautions with respect to her postdoctoral appointment. These restrictions will allow this matter to be fairly resolved within the judicial system.

Our leadership team thanks you for sharing our passion for the Zoo, and your continued support is greatly appreciated.

Now, compare that to the response a colleague received about the same time from the National Zoo (this shouldn’t take long):

Thank you for contacting the Smithsonian’s National Zoo regarding the allegations against Dr. Nico Dauphine, a postdoctoral research fellow based within the Migratory Bird Center. We take our role as the nation’s zoo very seriously and work hard to provide leadership in animal care, conservation science, education, and sustainability.

Animal care is one of the Zoo’s top priorities, and we appreciate when visitors share our passion and concern for our animals’ well-being. Please be assured that Dr. Dauphine’s research in no way jeopardizes animals, and the Smithsonian has taken appropriate temporary precautions with respect to her postdoctoral appointment. These restrictions will allow this matter to be fairly resolved within the judicial system.

Our leadership team thanks you for sharing our passion for the Zoo, and your continued support is greatly appreciated.

All this talk of leadership and animal care seems like a mix of wishful thinking and damage control more than anything else. Would the reaction—from either the Zoo or FONZ—be the same if the animals involved weren’t neighborhood cats, but animals in the Zoo’s collection? I rather doubt it.

(Oh, and for the record: the Zoo does not have my continued support.)

•     •     •

“A friend will help you move,” goes the old joke. “A good friend will help you move a body.”

When FONZ says they’re “the dedicated partner of the National Zoological Park,” they mean it. Indeed, FONZ seems just as interested as the National Zoo in sweeping this whole “attempted animal cruelty” business under the rug. (Imagine: bad press the week before the busy Memorial Day weekend!)

Earlier this week, I sent my comments to National Zoo director Dennis Kelly via the Zoo’s incredibly opaque contact form. It turns out the same form is used to contact FONZ—bringing to mind the image of a series of individual recycling bins that, in fact, all lead to the same destination: the trash. Rather than falling for the same trick once more, then, I’m posting my message to FONZ right here:

Friends don’t let friends employ accused cat killers.

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