Nine days before Christmas the honchos at the Lincoln Park Zoo called veteran zookeeper Caryn Schrenzel into their office and fired her.

Schrenzel was one of some 35 zoo employees fired just before Christmas, victims of the Park District’s latest privatization scheme. In this case, the Park District will turn over management of the zoo to the not-for-profit Lincoln Park Zoological Society. “We’re going to run the zoo more efficiently,” says Kevin Bell, director of the zoo, who claims the layoffs will chop about $400,000 from a $5 million budget.

But the savings have damaged morale and public relations, as several well-regarded and popular employees, including Schrenzel, one of the zoo’s first woman keepers, were hastily dispatched to the unemployment office.

“They never sat us down and explained why people had to be laid off,” Schrenzel says. “And then when the time came they told me to clean out my locker. That’s it–no thanks for 22 years of service, no offers to help me try to get on my feet, no sign of sympathy at all.”

Schrenzel started at the zoo in the spring of 1972. She was 22 years old, fresh out of college, and fulfilling a childhood dream to work with animals.

“When they told me I got the job I thought I would die, I was so excited,” says Schrenzel, who like all zookeepers had to pass a written civil service exam. “It was the first time they had hired women as zookeepers–before that there were women who worked in the children’s zoo and they were called zoo leaders. There were six of us hired. There were articles in the papers.”

Schrenzel started in the small animal house, but over the years she’s worked with all the animals. She’s cleaned the elephants, fed the lions, stroked the backs of baby tigers, and walked around the zoo with exotic birds tethered to her arm and answered the public’s questions.

“I cleaned cages and made food for the animals,” Schrenzel says. “It can be very physical work. You have to spray water on the cages with big pressure hoses, which are heavy. The food comes in large containers. Bales of hay and straw are heavy.

“But I loved it. I loved working with the animals. We all wish they could be in their natural habitats, but if they are in captivity I like to think I made it possible for them to get the best possible care. I saw to it that they’re not ignored or totally bored. And believe me, the animals get to know you. Even in the reptile house. The snakes recognize you. They sense you. They know I meant food.”

In the late 1970s Schrenzel helped the zoo’s surgeon remove a tooth from Mike, the polar bear. “Mike’s head was on my lap while the tooth was pulled,” says Schrenzel. “I was holding his lips open. He was anesthetized, of course, and we had ropes tied to his legs. He had bad teeth, the poor guy; he was really old.”

Schrenzel says she had no reason to feel her job was in jeopardy until mid-1994, when rumors about privatization began to spread.

By then the Park District’s general superintendent, Forrest Claypool, and Mayor Daley had made it clear that they intended to privatize golf courses, garages, and other Park District enterprises in order to save money, improve services, and get rid of unnecessary employees.

The obvious candidate to take control of the zoo was the Zoological Society, which has been raising money for the zoo since the 1950s.

“Privatization has been happening all across the United States,” says Bell. “And most places where it happens are zoos because zoos are fairly extensive operations.”

About a year ago the Park District commissioned a report from an outfit called the Boston Consulting Group, which recommended several “efficiencies,” Bell says.

“Zookeepers was one of the things we looked at for more efficiencies,” says Bell. “It was felt that based on scheduling changes and other factors there could probably be a pretty good reduction in our zookeeper work force.”

For instance, by trimming the Park District’s “very generous” vacation, sick, comp, and holiday time, they can make do with fewer workers, Bell explains. Schedules will be rejiggered so each zookeeper works two-thirds of the weekends instead of half. “We felt there was significant savings to handling business as you would in the private sector,” says Bell.

But Schrenzel and other zookeepers contend they were not consulted by the consultants, nor were they given a chance to suggest ways to save money other than firing employees.

“The staff kept us in the dark about the negotiations between the society and the Park District,” says Schrenzel. ‘They would tell us, ‘There are no negotiations going on,’ and we would say, ‘Well, what about those stories in the paper?’ And they would say, ‘The papers have it wrong.'”

In November zoo officials did an about-face, says Schrenzel.

“We were in a meeting, and [a supervisor] announced that the agreement had been signed turning the zoo over to the society,” says Schrenzel. “I said, ‘Imagine that–with no negotiations.’ Everyone burst out laughing, except for [the supervisor]. She just glared at me. She has no sense of humor.”

As part of the agreement with the society, all zoo employees–including Bell–were delivered termination notices. “And then we began a rehiring process, which included job interviews,” says Bell.

Bell says each interview was thorough. But Schrenzel and other employees say the sessions lasted for all of five minutes.

“Basically, I was in and out,” says James Campbell, another zookeeper laid off in the days before Christmas. “They asked a lot of specific questions about whether I can do certain aspects of the job. Can I lift 50 pounds? Can I work both shifts? Was I willing and able to talk to the public? I said, ‘Yes, everything in the job description I can do and have done.’ There were also a couple of open-ended questions, like, what do I find rewarding about working at the zoo?”

By December 16, Bell and his top aides had decided who to rehire and fire. The announcements were made that day.

“They took me into an office and they said, “As you know, we’re going to have a new administration as of January 1, and you will not be part of it,” says Schrenzel. “I said, ‘Can you give me a reason why?’ They said, ‘It’s a management decision.’ They said I had to turn in my key and clean out my locker. I was in shock. I came in early the next morning before work and started taking out all the things that had accumulated over the years. At the very bottom was an old macrame belt, which must have been a remnant of the 70s. Another zookeeper came over to keep me company so I wouldn’t be alone. She was crying, it was so sad.”

Schrenzel contends she was fired because she’s an independent-minded woman who’s not afraid to challenge authority.

“I’m the kind of person who asks a lot of questions and tries to tell the truth,” she says. “I can understand they want to give us fewer days off to save money. But they rehired people with much less seniority than me and people with poor work records. They were biased. They fired people they didn’t like. They knew who they wanted to rehire and fire several months ago.

“Nobody can believe I didn’t get rehired. Some of the zookeepers who worked with me said they would write letters on my behalf. But I wouldn’t let them do it because they would lose their jobs. They have us scared to death to do anything or say anything.”

Campbell, who had been working at the zoo since 1975, also received the bad news on December 16.

“They said the decision was based on my past performance record,” Campbell says. “I asked them to get more specific and they said they couldn’t. I had a good performance record. As far as qualifications, I had them. I think I was fired because I had been very active in the union and made information about the zoo known to other employees. After my meeting I went to the farm in the zoo to make some phone calls and they sent over some curators who said, ‘We want your keys. Clean out your locker.'”

On December 29, Local 46 of the Service Employees Union, which represents the zookeepers, filed a complaint alleging unfair labor practices with the National Labor Relations Board. The local contends that Campbell was fired for warning coworkers that change was coming and informing them of their rights under labor law. It also alleges that the Zoological Society had failed an obligation to recognize and bargain with the union.

Bell says that the terminations should not be called firings but “rehiring decisions,” that they were handled as humanely as possible, and that only 9 of some 80 keepers were let go. “Nobody likes to have anybody lose their jobs,” says Bell. “It’s very difficult to tell people that they will not be rehired. We felt that it was important everybody be individually talked to and told what the situation was.”

Bell also says “rehiring decisions were based solely on job performance. We used a system that tried to remove any individual bias on the part of people who were evaluating employees. We prioritized people primarily on performance, and it was the consensus of the entire animal management staff.”

As for Schrenzel, she says she’s not sure what she’ll do next. “I had to go to the unemployment office, but they didn’t have anything for me–there’s not a lot of jobs for zookeepers,” she says. “The sad thing is I loved my job. I had a lot of good friends at the zoo, I like talking to the public, and of course I loved the animals. If this hadn’t happened I would have stayed at the zoo forever.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Yael Routtenberg.