Sarah Ellzey's love of animals is what first attracted her to a job at Global Wildlife Center as a teenager, a passion that drew her back for two more stints there, despite her growing concern about animal injuries and neglect.
But Ellzey and other former employees say there have been serious behind-the-scenes problems at Global Wildlife aside from the fate of animals or the validity of the park’s nonprofit status – issues that have recently been exposed in a joint investigation by WWL-TV and The New Orleans Advocate about the popular Northshore attraction.
Ellzey and others say that female workers also experienced sexual harassment, in the form of unwanted comments, touching, kissing and even groping by Ken Matherne, the park's 61-year-old founder.
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Matherne did not agree to be interviewed, and during a brief conversation he did not answer questions about female employees' allegations. Management at the park would not talk about it.
But sexual harassment was one of the themes that arose in a firestorm of criticism on social media from ex-employees, including women who say they were victimized.
“He has grabbed me,” Ellzey said. “He has shoved his tongue down my throat. Completely unwarranted, completely unwanted.”
Another ex-employee, Corissa Gioia, said Matherne pinned her against the side of the pool during a company party more than five years ago.
“He was trying to touch me in very inappropriate places,” she said.
The incidents often took place at company parties and crawfish boils held at the “Bungalow’s” – Matherne's house on the grounds of the park – or his yacht.
“At Christmas parties, sometimes he would have girls dancing on his yacht bar, throwing money at them,” ex-employee Brett Guillet said.
Another ex-worker, Brad Nethery said that he saw Matherne engage in unwanted physical contact that including “him groping, kissing, grabbing,” behavior that he said happened “at his private parties, at work, at any time.”
Many of the ex-employees said Matherne also required women workers to kiss him on the mouth before they could get their Christmas bonus.
The complaints are not limited to social media posts. Ellzey and her husband, Russell, also an ex-employee, filed formal written complaints with the Tangipahoa Parish Sheriff's Office on Feb. 2.
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“For Christmas each year, all females were required to line up and kiss him on the mouth to receive Christmas bonus,” Sarah Ellzey wrote in her complaint.
In his complaint, Russell Ellzey corroborated the kisses-for-bonuses tradition, as well as other types of inappropriate behavior by Matherne.
“I have been present when he has disrobed himself in front of numerous female employees,” Ellzey wrote.
In perhaps the most serious of the allegations in her complaint, Ellzey said that Matherne groped her many times when she worked there.
“He's physically sexually assaulted me more times than I can count,” she wrote.
It detailed one incident in which Matherne allegedly cornered her in the swimming pool at his Bungalows compound during a staff crawfish boil in 2013 and tried to forcibly kiss her.
Other employees intervened, the complaint said, but not before Matherne untied her bathing suit top, exposing her breasts in front of more than a dozen co-workers.
The Tangipahoa Sheriff's Office declined to comment, saying the case remains open. The sheriff’s office also refused to release documents, saying that any disclosure could reveal the identity of a victim of sexual assault. But the Ellzeys provided copies of their complaints.
Mary Claire Landry, director of the New Orleans Family Justice Center, said the episodes described by ex-employees, including the removal of a worker's top and having to kiss the boss to get a bonus “would be so out of bounds that I would never think that would be acceptable or appropriate.”
Ellzey and other ex-workers said that managers would tell employees that they simply needed to be firm with Matherne and tell him no or avoid being around him — something she said was difficult to do.
“If you complained about something as serious so severe such as a sexual assault or harassment, if it got back to Ken you'd be fired,” Gioia said. “There were no ifs ands or buts about it.”
Landry, an expert on sexual harassment and assault, said it's not uncommon for victims to keep quiet for years.
“It takes a lot of courage and a lot of willpower to be able to stand up to someone who has much more money than you have,” she said. “That kind of intimidation silences many victims.”
That's exactly the scenario ex-employees describe. Former employee Megan Smith said that she saw female co-workers get groped on many occasions.
“Usually they were too afraid to say anything to management,” she said.
When incidents occurred, Ellzey said, managers would perform what she called a “debriefing,” pulling the women aside, usually the next day, and telling them, “you're not going to tell on us, right?”
Global Wildlife Center currently has about 25 employees, but it has no human resources department, according to former workers.
Sometimes the harassment and bullying by Matherne would be verbal, ex-employees said. “He would make comments like, ‘You should unbutton another button on your shirt,’ ” Smith said.
Ellzey said Matherne often commented about her breasts.
“Verbally you were never safe from what he was going to say,” she said.
Now the former employees are finding strength in numbers, and they say that's encouraged them to speak out.
“I was just young and naive,” Gioia said, “and I didn't even know the proper steps to take to pursue legal action if I wanted to.”
Sarah Ellzey said she never had high hopes that her complaint would lead to any police action. In fact, sexual battery in Louisiana has a prescription of six years, meaning that Ellzey’s complaint from the June 2013 pool party would expire next month.
But whatever the outcome, Ellzey believes it was important for her to speak up.
“I'm disgusted,” she said. “The only reason I've come forward is I don't want this to keep happening.”
Digital Design by Kevin Dupuy, WWL-TV.