Tiffany Whipkey, senior zookeeper at the Akron Zoo, was having a lunchtable
discussion with coworkers on Feb. 28. Someone brought up the television show
"Fear Factor." The talk turned into a bet over whether she would jump
into the zoo's 16,000-gallon penguin tank.
It was after hours at the Ohio zoo, and Whipkey took the dare.
The zoo fired her on March 4, on grounds that she had ignored zoo policy by
putting herself and the penguins in danger.
But Teamsters Local 507, which is trying to organize zoo employees, says the
firing had more to do with Whipkey's union activity than her swim, according
to the Akron Beacon-Journal.
Zookeepers and building and grounds staff are expected to vote March 31 on
whether to join the union. Local 507 President Carl Pecoraro told the Beacon-Journal
that Whipkey had been the main witness at a hearing into whether senior zookeepers
should be part of the proposed bargaining unit. She had testified about her
duties, which the zoo maintained were supervisory, and rebutted the administration's
position, Pecoraro said.
Whipkey should have been disciplined for the stunt, he said, but not fired.
But zoo officials, who acted after seeing videotape of Whipkey's plunge, said
she disturbed 16 rare Humboldt penguins on loan to the facility. Vice President
of Communications Linda Troutman noted that the birds were nesting in preparation
for laying eggs. Their reaction to such a disturbance would be to run, which
could have caused injury to them, she said.
Troutman added that the pool is unsafe for humans who aren't wearing protective
gear, since it contains penguin waste and the remains of fish fed to the birds.