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10 Duluth zookeepers face loss of jobs

Ray Washburn, a zookeeper for 32 years, won't be re-applying for his job at Duluth's Lake Superior Zoo. And most of the zoo's other nine zookeepers probably won't either.

Zookeeper
Wendy Buczynski of Superior feeds the rabbits at the Lake Superior Zoo earlier this year. Buczynski has been a zookeeper for 21 years. The 10 full-time zookeepers and nine part-time zookeeper aides, will be laid off by the city at year's end when the zoo's management is passed to the nonprofit Lake Superior Zoological Society. [NEWS TRIBUNE/2008 FILE]

Ray Washburn, a zookeeper for 32 years, won't be re-applying for his job at Duluth's Lake Superior Zoo. And most of the zoo's other nine zookeepers probably won't either.

As most of them face forced early retirement when the Lake Superior Zoological Society takes over the zoo's operation at year's end, the application process to fill their jobs has begun.

With job descriptions posted on the society's Web site this weekend, one detail is missing: wages.

"We'll pay decent wages and have benefits for full-time workers," said Sam Maida, the society's executive director.

While exact wages haven't been "nailed down," one thing is clear: The society can't match wages paid by the city, Maida said.

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The 10 full-time zookeepers, along with nine part-time zookeeper aides, will be laid off by the city at year's end on Dec. 31 when the zoo's management is passed to the nonprofit zoological society as a cost-cutting measure.

Seven of the 10 zookeepers are within four years of retirement, each with more than 20 years experience taking care of the animals, Washburn said. By losing their city jobs, they face a forced early retirement and reduced pension benefits.

At 57, Washburn is the most senior zookeeper. He began working at the zoo at age 25 and planned to retire April 1.

But retiring three months early will mean a monthly pension check that's $300 less "for the rest of my life," he says. Six other zookeepers who may be forced to retire three years early will be worse off. They'll lose one third of their pensions, he said.

Despite extensive layoffs and cuts, chief administrative officer Lisa Potswald said the city is looking for other city jobs for the zookeepers. Human resources staff is meeting with each individually this week. The part-time zoo workers -- which include night watchmen, keeper aides and veterinary technician -- will lose their jobs but can re-apply for them with the zoological society.

After his meeting with human resources on Monday, Washburn wasn't optimistic.

"They just said they would keep us in mind, but there was no offer, no guarantee," he said. "It sounds like I would be forced to retire."

Under new management, the zoo will have similar staffing with some job restructuring and a greater team approach, Maida said.

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During the transition, the care of the animals won't suffer, he said.

"There will be qualified people working here, taking care of the animals," he said. "We won't hire people who don't know what they're doing. They need some education and experience dealing with exotic animals."

Washburn was skeptical and a little concerned about the animals.

"You can tell what's going on with an animal by just watching it," he said. "But it takes a lot to know those things."

Related Topics: LAKE SUPERIOR ZOO
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