Joking that it was reluctantly, the Wahpeton Park Board unanimously accepted the retirement of Parks and Recreation Director Wayne Beyer. His retirement is effective Memorial Day, May 30, 2022.
Beyer’s resignation request was approved during a Wednesday, Nov. 17 park board meeting. Chahinkapa Zoo Director Kathy Diekman also participated in the meeting. Commissioners and parks employees learned more about the loss of Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) accreditation and Diekman’s response to former employees’ allegations of an unsafe, unfriendly working environment.
‘With a great deal of regret’
Park Board President Joe Schreiner said Beyer’s decision to retire had been talked about for several months prior to Wednesday. Schreiner and Commissioner Brian Watson are expected to present a plan on the process of obtaining a new parks and recreation director when the park board meets in December.
“(We want to) get Wayne’s replacement in here as soon as possible and let Wayne work with that person,” Schreiner said.
Commissioner Roger Jensen made the motion to accept Beyer’s resignation “with a great deal of regret.” Commissioner Tyler Gripentrog seconded it, “but my heart hurts.” The park board is completed by Commissioner Deb Tobias, who joked that Beyer couldn’t have his last day around her upcoming birthday.
Over the years, Beyer has written about outdoors experiences in the Twin Towns Area and beyond. He’s also continued to promote outdoors careers.
“Parks and recreation is a very appealing job,” Beyer wrote in October 2020. “Where else can you get paid for hobbies like hunting, playing sports, public art, forestry, fishing, running, gardening and cross-country skiing?”
‘There is life after the AZA’
Park board commissioners expressed their support for Diekman during and after her report. While Chahinkapa Zoo was surprised to be denied continued AZA accreditation, she said, the zoo takes pride in achievements which AZA inspectors acknowledged in their report.
“The lesser concerns (in the report) are very manageable. We addressed each of those. Those did not come up in the hearing at all,” Diekman said.
AZA commissioners recently asked questions about how Chahinkapa Zoo’s cheetahs and rhinoceroses were acquired, Diekman said. She said the rhinos are part of the AZA’s Species Survival Plan (SSP). When they were hurt during transport, Diekman said, the zoo first called the U.S. Department of Agriculture because they wanted the USDA to investigate the situation.
“They found no fault with the facility we received (the rhinos) from, no fault with the driver and certainly gave commendation to us,” Diekman said.
The AZA also felt Chahinkapa Zoo circumvented the SSP in obtaining cheetahs, Diekman said. She told park board commissioners that the SSP is not a law that zoos are required to follow and that the cheetahs, presently in a former tiger habitat, will receive their own habitat.
In July 2021, the Wahpeton City Council approved allocating $566,320 in sales tax for economic development revenue for the construction of new tiger, fossa and cheetah habitats.
“We did say in the hearing that perhaps we could have (communicated) more, but it’s still in my mind not what you would get denied (accreditation) for,” Diekman said.
Chahinkapa Zoo has chosen not to appeal, both because it is not believed an appeal would make a difference and because the zoo is not certain about the direction the AZA is taking. Prior to the recent denial, the zoo had been AZA-accredited for more than 25 years.
“We were the smallest metro area to have an accredited zoo,” Diekman said. “The board would like me to seek another accreditation.”
Diekman said that while the loss of AZA accreditation is disappointing, she is more upset about what she called social media attacks on the zoo, herself, zoo staff and zoo administration.
“There’s some untruths in there. We can always improve on our jobs, but they’re very personal attacks,” Diekman said.
KFGO and KVRR in Fargo both reported on the former employees’ allegations on Thursday, Nov. 18, the day after the park board meeting. Former zookeeper Monica Demke said there was a communications breakdown. Demke and Jessie Monson, another former zookeeper, said more than one former staff member was injured while on duty. A third former zookeeper, Melissa Nelson, said the welfare of animals and staff members was not considered by the zoo. She singled out events like Zombie Paintball and Wild Game Shows, alleging the latter included encouragement to dress “sexy” to attract guests.
Diekman’s response as published by KFGO and KVRR is similar to what she said to Wahpeton Park Board members.
“We’re an open book,” she said. “It is hard on my staff to hear this. We’re not going to go online — we’re not going to talk about people’s personal files. I’m not going to do it.”
Beyer, Diekman’s supervisor, said Wednesday that animal welfare and care, as well as employee welfare, is being met at Chahinkapa Zoo.
“We hold our heads high with the good things that we do,” Beyer said.