Sarah Ellzey's love of animals is what first attracted her to a job at Global Wildlife Center as a teenager, and it drew her back for two more stints at the center near Folsom, despite her growing concern about animal injuries and neglect she said she witnessed.
But Ellzey and more than a dozen other former employees say there have been serious behind-the-scenes problems at Global Wildlife apart from the fate of animals or the validity of the park’s nonprofit status — issues that have been raised this week in a joint investigation by WWL-TV and The New Orleans Advocate about the popular north shore attraction.
Ellzey and others say that female workers experienced sexual harassment in the form of unwanted comments, touching, kissing and even groping by Ken Matherne, the park's 61-year-old founder and boss.
Matherne did not agree to be interviewed for this story, and during a brief conversation, he did not answer questions about female employees' allegations. Management at the park would not talk about the issue.
But sexual harassment was a persistent complaint of numerous 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 Bungalows — Matherne's house on the grounds of the park — or his yacht.
Ken Matherne says he didn't set out to create a wildlife park some 30 years ago, but after buying some deer, kangaroos and giraffes in the ear…
“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 he saw Matherne engage in unwanted physical contact that included “him groping, kissing, grabbing” — behavior that Nethery said happened “at his private parties, at work, at any time.”
While many former employees registered their gripes on social media, some have taken their complaints to law enforcement. Ellzey and her husband, Russell, also an ex-employee, filed formal written complaints with the Tangipahoa Parish Sheriff's Office on Feb. 2.
“For Christmas each year, all females were required to line up and kiss him on the mouth to receive (their) Christmas bonus,” Sarah Ellzey wrote in her complaint.
In his complaint, Russell Ellzey corroborated the kisses-for-bonuses tradition, as well as other 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, Sarah Ellzey said that Matherne groped her many times while she worked there.
“He's physically sexually assaulted me more times than I can count,” she wrote.
She also detailed an incident in which she said Matherne cornered her and tried to forcibly kiss her in the swimming pool at his compound during a staff crawfish boil in 2013.
Other employees intervened, according to the complaint, but not before Matherne untied her bathing suit top, exposing her breasts in front of more than a dozen co-workers.
A spokeswoman for the Tangipahoa Parish Sheriff's Office confirmed that there is an open investigation into the allegations but said that she could not comment on it.
The Sheriff's Office refused to release documents on the investigation, saying that doing so would reveal the identity of a victim of sexual assault. But the Ellzeys provided copies of their complaints to The New Orleans Advocate and WWL-TV.
The Global Wildlife Center near Folsom seems like an animal paradise — deer, giraffes, zebras and camels wander freely over 900 acres as visit…
Mary Claire Landry, director of the New Orleans Family Justice Center, said some of the episodes described by the ex-employees "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 if's, and's or but's 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's exactly the scenario ex-employees describe. Former employee Megan Smith said that she saw female co-workers being groped on many occasions. "Usually they were too afraid to say anything to management," she said.
When incidents occurred, Sarah Ellzey said, managers would pull aside the woman or women who had been harassed, usually the next day, and say, “You're not going to tell on us, right?”
Global Wildlife Center has about 25 employees. 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. They say that has emboldened 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. Most potentially applicable criminal statutes in Louisiana, such as sexual battery, have a statute of limitations 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.”