News10NBC Investigates: Seneca Park Zoo cited following lion escape

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ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WHEC) — USDA inspectors found 10 different citations at the Seneca Park Zoo during an inspection in September of 2021. The issues range from the care being given to certain animals, the facilities in which those animals were being kept and the training or lack thereof of certain staff members.

The zoo is inspected annually by the USDA and for years it has gone citation-free but an additional inspection was triggered after a female lion escaped from her enclosure while the zoo was open to the public in September of 2021.

In regards to the escape, the USDA inspector found that the “female lion was in holding during an unscheduled, unapproved husbandry training session and was placed in a squeeze cage attached to the primary enclosure…the squeeze wall was moved in a manner that created a gap in the primary enclosure and as the animal backed out of the cage, she was able to get through the opening created between the main door and squeeze wall.”

That wasn’t the only problem with the incident according to the inspection, “the lethal force team was deployed without adequate training for performance during emergencies,” it reads. “An incorrect code for the incident was called by the first responder on scene. According to reports and a responding team member of the team, another team member lacked a weapon and did not demonstrate adequate safety precautions when handling held weapon.”

The inspection also included an incident with a snow leopard cub. The USDA found that “Animal care staff disregarded the birth management plan developed by the attending veterinarian which directed that the animals must not be disturbed for 24 hours after birth to reduce change of stress and maternal neglect.” The Vet directed staff to watch monitors but instead, “staff entered 6-7 times in an approximate 7-hour period to “check” on animals, and after initially being observed caring for the cub, the mother rejected it. Making matters worse, the cub developed a respiratory infection and gastrointestinal condition that required medical management in the hospital.

There were other citations too regarding delayed implementation of treatment plans for animals, enclosure and sanitation issues and chain of command problems.

The report says, “the facility has not assured the authority of the attending veterinarian to ensure the adequacy of veterinary and husbandry care. Staff are instructed to go to the curator about animal medical and husbandry problems and then information will go to the attending veterinarian if deemed necessary by the curator, preventing or delaying the attending veterinarian’s access to timely, accurate information on veterinary medical issues and the animal care program.”

Monroe County Executive Adam Bello spoke with News10NBC Investigative Reporter Jennifer Lewke about the report on Thursday, he says some of the citations the county agrees with, others were appealed.

Adam Bello – There were some things that we agreed with.

Jennifer Lewke – Like what?

Adam Bello – Well, there was some training issues… things like that and reporting structure things and then there were other things that we went back-and-forth on about whether not it was true or not things like that…we took every action to make sure that those animals are well taken care of. We acted on the recommendations that they gave us and right now there are no deficiencies at the zoo at this point from the USDA.

Jennifer Lewke – We understand that the lead veterinarian (Dr. Louis DiVincenti) has been dismissed from his job, is there anything you can share with us about why?

Adam Bello – No, I don’t comment on personal issues like that, it wouldn’t be appropriate.

Jennifer Lewke – Have any other staff members been re-trained or disciplined for what was in that report?

Adam Bello – There’s ongoing, there’s always ongoing training at the Zoo but I’m not going to get into personal issues about things like that… listen, the health and safety of the animals at the zoo is a very big priority of ours and that zoo is a treasure for this community so many families love going to the zoo and we’re putting a lot of our effort and resources into making that the best zoo in upstate New York and we’re going to continue those efforts.

Bello said it was his office that notified both the USDA and the AZA on the same day, Sept. 3 of the lion escape and on Sept.20, 2021, the Zoo Director requested that the AZA visit the Zoo for an inspection. On Sept. 25, the General Curator of the Zoo requested that the USDA visit the Zoo for an inspection.

On Dec. 17, 2021, the USDA visited the Zoo for a Focused Inspection which is essentially a follow-up to make sure the citations have been corrected. The Focused Inspection found no deficiencies, concluding that the Zoo had rectified the citations regarding the sea lions, snow leopards, and elephants.

News10NBC Investigative Reporter Jennifer Lewke spoke with Dr. Louis DiVincenti on Thursday by phone. He confirmed he was fired on Wednesday and says he was surprised by the decision considering the report acknowledges a handful of times that his directions were not followed by the staff in several instances. There is a bit of a complicated backstory as Dr. DiVincenti was hired under the previous county administration and is currently involved in a lawsuit again the CEO of the Zoo Society. Dr. DiVincenti has alleged she defamed him by sending a letter to county leaders questioning a number of his medical decisions and practices.

Here’s the full USDA report (mobile users, click here):

USDA Inspection Report by News10NBC on Scribd