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Honolulu Zoo Audit Reveals Serious Issues; City Officials Say Changes Have Been Made

Jason Ubay/HPR

A city audit of the Honolulu Zoo found a discrepancy of more than $650,000 in its finances, along with other problems. But city officials say the audit's findings are "dated" and changes have already been made.

The latest review by the Office of the City Auditor began in 2016, when the zoo lost its accreditation from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). The loss not only hurt the zoo's reputation, but also hindered its breeding program, importation of exotic animals and expansion and diversity of its exhibits.

The audit found the Zoo Society – a nonprofit that helps support the zoo – claimed to have given it more than $850,000 in contributions between 2015 and 2017. But the zoo only received a portion of that.

Unaccounted for is $658,000.

"We don't know what happened to that money," Troy Shimasaki, acting city auditor, told HPR. "Maybe the society captured, reprogrammed it. We don't know, but from the audit perspective, we certainly can confirm the zoo did not receive that money."

Shimasaki says the auditing team looked at the zoo and the city's Department of Enterprise Services, the agency that oversees the zoo, to see if there were systems in place to track the money. But there weren't at the time.

Shimasaki said if the zoo did receive those funds, it could have addressed other issues, such as maintenance and staffing.

"The biggest takeaways from my audit is that there really was no formal maintenance program at the zoo to identify the priority areas," Shimasaki said. He also said the zoo lacked a system to program resources and a timetable to correct the issues. "It was very reactionary."

Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell called the audit "dated." He said many changes have been made since 2017 – including the hiring of a new zoo director.

However, the city's Department of Enterprise Services agreed with the audit's findings and recommendations. Deputy Director Tracy Kubota said the department was aware of the zoo's issues because it was brought up after the AZA's assessment of the zoo. 

"The last few years, we did numerous improvements," Kubota said. "Roofing upgrades, exhibit upgrades, improvements to the holding and sleeping quarters for a lot of our animals. We have a whole laundry list of things that we've done to address rust mitigation, refurbishing of walls, ADA walkways, sidewalk repairs."

According to Kubota, the department also installed new systems to streamline maintenance reporting and projects.

The audit also revealed the zoo paid more than $700,000 in overtime during the three years. Kubota says the duties of zoo staff has to be flexible, and ensuring the well-being of animals is an around-the-clock job. Because of these factors, she says the department has built the overtime into the zoo's operating budget.

Auditor Shimasaki says it seems like the zoo and DES are making improvements, but wants to caution city officials that the problems that were found in the audit could occur again.

The Association of Zoos and Aquariums is scheduled to visit Honolulu next month to determine whether the improvements are enough for re-accreditation.


Casey Harlow is an HPR reporter and occasionally fills in as local host of Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Contact him at or on Twitter (@CaseyHarlow).
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