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Union speaks out against Miller Park Zoo terminating zookeepers

AFSCME Council 31 staff representative Renee Nestler speaking in front of crowd at demonstration on Saturday.

BLOOMINGTON (HOI) -- Employees at Miller Park Zoo observed Endangered Species Day by advocating for a threatened group most don't think about-the zookeepers themselves.

About 50 people attended the rally held Saturday to raise awareness of three zookeepers that were illegally terminated in recent years.

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 699 said zookeepers were falsely accused by the city of offenses they did not commit with little to no evidence presented to back it up.

The union said of the five full-time zookeepers at Miller Park, three have been illegally terminated by zoo management and the City of Bloomington. One zookeeper has been wrongly fired twice. Two are currently out of work.

They said the zoo said employees have the option to sign a last chance agreement that waives their rights to a proper investigation, meaning the zookeepers waive their chance to state their position. And if they don't sign it, they are terminated.

Grace Mitchell was the lead children's zookeeper at Miller Park Zoo and is one of the zookeepers currently out of work. She said the termination "felt like a gutpunch" from zoo management and the city of Bloomington, but is grateful for the support from the union and the community.

"Zookeeping is a job of passion," Mitchell said. "To get that kind of ripped away, it sucks."

Union staff representative Renee Nestler said the union rallied to advocate for zookeepers who were kept from speaking up for themselves because of the agreement.

"It's a lot of frustration [because] it doesn't have to be this way, it shouldn't be this way," Nestler said. "For the three zookeepers that are still working, they're concerned about 'Are they next?' If they make one mistake will they be in a similar situation as the zookeepers before them?"

Nestler said the organization will continue to fight until they are back into work.

The City of Bloomington, which owns the Miller Park Zoo, is not commenting directly, but told 25 News they take each termination into serious consideration before making any decisions.

Darnysha Mitchell

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