Shortly after two of its employees were quoted blasting the state's handling of jaguar Macho B, the University of Arizona's veterinary lab slapped what an ex-employee calls a "gag rule" forbidding employees to talk publicly about findings that the lab makes.
The UA's Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory's director said he wrote what he called a clarification of the lab's confidentiality policy because of a March 29 Star article titled "Did Macho B Have to Die?" He said he did it to ensure that the lab maintained its professional accreditation.
The article quoted pathologist Sharon Dial and pathology resident Jennifer Johnson as challenging state Game and Fish Department and zoo officials.
The article helped lead to a federal criminal investigation of Macho B's capture and death that continues, nearly six months after the investigation started and more than six months after the jaguar's capture and subsequent death by euthanization.
Despite the story's importance, no law stops public agencies from ordering employees not to talk publicly about their employers' actions, said an attorney who deals with First Amendment issues.
"You have a First Amendment right to talk. But your employer can tell you that we don't want you talking for the agency, and if you do they could do whatever they want, including terminating the person," said Dan Barr, a Phoenix attorney who represents the First Amendment Coalition, a nonprofit group that represents media organizations in Arizona.
The lab's new confidentiality policy says employees can't discuss information about a lab client or its animals that was brought to light by laboratory testing or postmortem examination. The restriction holds even for a report that is released under the state Public Records Act. Vet lab director Gregory Bradley inserted this language three days after the Star's article appeared.
"It's just a clarification. I always thought the policy was clear, but to two people it wasn't clear," Bradley said on Friday, after the Star obtained a copy of the new language through the public-records law.
Bradley pointed to the American Association of Veterinary Laboratory Diagnosticians' requirement that to gain accreditation, veterinary labs "shall have policies and procedures to insure the protection of its clients' confidential information."
The UA vet lab report, based on tissue samples submitted by the zoo, said in March that it found no evidence of kidney failure in the jaguar.
That directly contradicted the zoo's diagnosis that Macho B had unrecoverable kidney failure after it was recaptured on March 2.
Dial questioned the state's decision to euthanize the jaguar — recommended by a zoo veterinarian. She said the state and zoo should have waited up to 48 hours to make sure the animal didn't just have dehydration.
Johnson said at the time that while Macho B may have had acute kidney failure that didn't show up in the tissues, the lack of signs of chronic kidney failure in those tissues probably meant the jaguar didn't have kidney failure when he was captured. That contradicted an earlier statement by Phoenix Zoo veterinarian Dean Rice that the animal probably had kidney failure when he was initially captured that would have killed him within two months. Rice said that the capture probably aggravated the condition.
This week, Johnson, who has since been laid off due to budget cuts, criticized Bradley's action as a "gag rule." She called it shortsighted when applied to cases involving public agencies. The privately run zoo was the lab's client on Macho B, but it had been working for Game and Fish. She is comfortable with having the rule applied to private clients when no public agency is involved, she said.
"My feeling was that I would discuss a report with people because I didn't want them to misinterpret it," Johnson said.
Bradley replied that the accreditation group's confidentiality requirements don't distinguish between public and private parties.
"I don't think we have the option of setting the rules aside. I think the requirement is pretty clear," Bradley said Friday.
Dial said she is comfortable with Bradley's action but doesn't regret her earlier statements.
"At the time I didn't think I was going against any policies he had set. I did what I did because I strongly felt that things weren't handled appropriately by Game and Fish and it needed to be held accountable," Dial said.
After reading the March 29 article, Janay Brun, a research technician for the Borderlands Jaguar Detection Project, sent the Star an e-mail outlining her allegation that Emil McCain, a biologist for the project, had told Brun to place female jaguar scat on Feb. 4 at a trap site. The site, in rugged hills northwest of Nogales, had been set to capture mountain lions and bears for a study, Game and Fish said later. Macho B was captured in that trap on Feb. 18. McCain has denied ordering Brun to put the scat there.
On April 2 — after the Star wrote of Brun's allegations — the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service launched its criminal investigation.