Ex-worker sues zoo, warns of illness
23-year veteran got lung disease; zoo says it's safe
Rocky Mountain News | May 21, 2005
By Sue Lindsay
Mary Patterson has loved the Denver Zoo for as long as she can remember.
She loved it so much that she took an internship there in 1980 when she was in high school.
She loved it so much she left college when the zoo offered her a full-time position, beginning a 23-year career.
She loved it so much, she says, it almost killed her.
Dismissed from her job in September, Patterson has filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, charging that she was fired because she got sick from working at the zoo and tried to prevent others from contracting the disease.
Patterson, who has worked with animals throughout the zoo, had been assigned to Bird World for four years when she began having trouble breathing in 2000.
Doctors eventually diagnosed her symptoms as chronic occupational hypersensitivity pneumonitis, a severe lung disease caused by the immune system's response to repeated and prolonged exposure to bird dust and droppings.
She was left with less than half the lung capacity of most people, but her doctors, including the city physician, cleared her to return to work as long as she didn't interact with birds.
But the city fired her.
Zoo spokeswoman Ana Bowie said Patterson's dismissal was unfortunate but necessary because she could no longer do her job. Bowie denies that the zoo was retaliating against her or anyone else.
Assistant City Attorney Mindy Wright said Patterson didn't raise complaints about conditions in the bird areas until after she was dismissed.
The zoo has refused offers by National Jewish Medical and Research Center and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health to evaluate whether Bird World poses health hazards to other workers and the public.
"They have taken away her right to work," attorney John Holland said. "This is a woman with 23 years of continued commitment to the city, and they won't even give her a chance to show she can do other jobs. They are forcing her to fight for her career."
Patterson has appealed her dismissal.
Holland and attorney Anna Cayton-Holland are planning to file a federal whistleblower lawsuit alleging disability discrimination and retaliation.
The zoo's retaliation didn't stop at Patterson, the attorneys allege.
Former employee Paul Vance, with whom Patterson lives, said the zoo told him he was no longer welcome as a volunteer. On staff as a zoo keeper for 13 years, Vance had volunteered regularly since he left seven years ago.
Vance was told he couldn't work as a volunteer until he completed the formal volunteer training, but it had nothing to do with Patterson, Bowie said.
"It was a case of unfortunate timing," she said.
Bowie said the zoo does not believe conditions at Bird World pose any risks. "We don't believe there is a health issue here," she said.
Patterson's health problem is "an extremely isolated incident related to one specific individual," Bowie said.
But Patterson, her doctors and attorneys contend the zoo is ignoring signs that other workers are at risk.
"I have been concerned that there is, in fact, a public health risk, mainly to other workers who are in the bird areas of the zoo on a regular basis," said Dr. Cecile Rose, an expert in the disease and director of the occupational medicine program at National Jewish Medical Center.
Patterson said another worker is showing signs of the disease, including shortness of breath, coughing and fatigue. She said she urged him to seek medical care, but he has not, fearing he, too, might lose his job.
The employee did not return calls seeking comment.
Patterson said her problems began in March 2000 when she woke up one morning with an unusual tightness in her chest. She began coughing and couldn't stop.
Patterson spent several years being treated for what her doctors thought was asthma or allergies, but symptoms worsened.
By January 2004, Patterson, always slim, had lost 25 pounds and was unable to walk a half a block without having to stop to catch her breath, according to her medical records.
Patterson continued to work as doctors tried to figure out what was wrong.
"I would wake up in the middle of the night in a panic," she said. "I was worried what would happen if I lost my job. It was like watching a slow train wreck coming, and I couldn't do anything to stop it."
In June, barely able to breathe, she continued to work carrying an oxygen tank with her. "At that point, I think I was near death," she said. "But I was afraid of losing my job. I loved my job. I wanted to show I could still do it."
Last summer, she saw another pulmonologist, who diagnosed her with hypersensitivity pneumonitis, also known as "pigeon lung" or "bird-keeper's disease."
Her doctor ordered her to stop working at the zoo until her condition stabilized and to get rid of two sparrows and a pigeon she kept as pets.
Patterson's condition improved with treatment, and her doctors cleared her to come back to work in September. But there was one catch: no more birds.
City officials ruled that she wasn't disabled and concluded they didn't need to make accommodations for her under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
They also said Patterson could no longer fulfill her basic responsibilities. She was "disqualified" and fired Sept. 15.
Patterson learned the news when she was turned away after she showed up at the zoo with her uniform, badge and lunch, preparing for a day's work. A dismissal letter came in the mail a short while later.
"Since then I've been going through the same emotions as if it were a death," Patterson said. "One day, I was at work. The next day I was gone, and I can't go back. I've lost my job, my livelihood, what I love. I'm angry, but more than that, I'm very sad and hurt. . . . I don't understand how they could do this."
Bowie said the zoo's hands were tied once the city's ADA evaluator concluded that Patterson wasn't disabled.
"Therefore she was not eligible for any kind of accommodation or reassignment," Bowie said. "But she couldn't do her job."
Patterson's doctor said she is baffled by the zoo's reaction.
"The zoo has fought Mary Patterson's case tooth and nail," Rose said. "I continue to be very surprised at their assertion that she's not disabled and there's no job accommodation for her."
Rose said she has serious concerns about the safety of other zookeepers who work in the bird areas.
"The nature of her disease is such that it implies the need to sit up and take notice and respond appropriately to make sure other workers who share that exposure are not at risk," she said.
Rose said National Jewish offered to evaluate the bird area for risks to other employees but was "rebuffed."
The union also asked for a NIOSH inquiry but was refused.
The zoo declined the offer, Bowie said, because it's doing its own investigation.
At the zoo's request, officials with the city's Department of Environmental Health did a "walk-through" in March and are considering what tests may be needed, said Bill Benerman, city environmental scientist supervisor.
"We didn't find any obvious indoor air quality or OSHA concerns," he said.
Rose said she is concerned the city may not have the expertise to assess the risks.
She contacted the zoo lastfall and worries that officials have been slow to respond.
Bowie said the zoo is confident no health risks exist.
"Our priority has always been the health and welfare of our employees and visitors," Bowie said. "We've been here for 109 years and never seen anything like this before. It's an isolated incident."
Rose disputes this view.
"That's a very uninformed and optimistic assessment of their problem," she said.
"I don't know whether there is a problem or not, but I think it's incredibly concerning for them to decide without any apparent facts that there's no problem," Rose said, "especially when a problem clearly exists with one of their workers and is not trivial."
Mark Schwane, executive director for the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees in Denver, said he doesn't understand the zoo's resistance to outside evaluation, especially if they're so certain no problem exists.
"We could wrangle on the jurisdictional issue," he said, "but the no-brainer from the union's perspective is to open it up and let's see where the problems are and resolve them."
Patterson said she just wishes she could get back to work.
"I loved the zoo," Patterson said. "It was my dream job. It was like my second home. I miss the animals. I miss my coworkers. I feel like someone shut the door on me."