Zoo in Rising Sun closing today for electrical repairs

October 03, 1994|By Suzanne Loudermilk | Suzanne Loudermilk,Sun Staff Writer

Iggy's eyelids flip open as the 14-year-old iguana raises his Godzilla head and listens. The chop-chop-chop is a familiar sound.

Slowly, the uncaged animal drags his wrinkled, 3-foot-long body to the source.

"Come on, buddy," Edward Plumstead says as he slices a sweet potato.

It's dinner time at the zoo.

Iggy is one of 350 animals at the Plumpton Park Zoological Gardens in Rising Sun. Since its opening in 1987, it has become Cecil County's largest tourist attraction.

Last year, 51,000 visitors walked through the 100-acre park, stocked with bison, camels, prairie dogs, monkeys, a petting zoo and more.

Now, its future is uncertain.

At 5 p.m. today, Plumpton Park will be closed by county officials for electrical repairs. Its first Zoofest, scheduled for Saturday, has been canceled, and eight October class trips for Cecil County schoolchildren have been put on hold.

"The biggest problem is extension cords galore through the cages," said Philip S. Bathon, president of the Cecil County Board of Electrical Examiners. Mr. Bathon's inspection report prompted the county's insurers, Local Government Insurance Trust, to support the park's closure.

The zoo's operators still are puzzled by the decision. They say the Cecil County Commissioners acted in a closed meeting Sept. 20. The operators say they were not told of the shutdown until 10 minutes before Tuesday's commissioners meeting.

"We have corrected all the deficiencies we could," said the zoo director, Samuel Conner. "If I felt the least bit of danger, I would have closed the zoo immediately."

W. Edward Cole Jr., president of the three-member Cecil Board of County Commissioners, contends that the Sept. 20 meeting was held to discuss other matters with the electrical board. The zoo issue was raised during that meeting.

"It was not purposely closed," Mr. Cole said of the meeting. "The doors were open. It was a round-table discussion."

He acknowledged that the meeting was not advertised.

"The biggest problem is no communication," Mr. Conner said. "They obviously have something to hide. They have meetings and don't invite us."

Mr. Bathon estimates that the zoo will be closed for two to three months. The rewiring will cost about $150,000, he said.

Plumpton Park, named after an Old English poem about white fallow deer, actually came into existence by accident. "It was decided for us to start the park," said Mr. Plumstead, 67, who has lived on the property since 1945.

"We decided to open on weekends," he said. That first year, 1987, the zoo had 3,000 visitors.

At the core of the controversy is the zoo's lease with the county and who is financially responsible for correcting the problems.

After years of growth and successive leases with the county, Mr. Plumstead, the landlord and a zoo volunteer, signed a 25-year lease with the county March 8.

Cecil county agreed to pay a $10-a-year rental fee and to "operate the park in a clean, careful, safe and proper manner."

To Mr. Conner and Mr. Plumstead, that means the county should bring the park up to code requirements. County officials aren't so sure.

County Attorney H. Norman Wilson issued an opinion on the lease Thursday. But his findings are not available to the public.

"We won't release it until the three members [commissioners] have had the opportunity to review it," the county administrator said.

Previously, Mr. Wilson has told the commissioners that the county was not obligated to incur additional expenses other than its $10 annual payment to the zoo because the park received a property tax abatement and is carried on the county's insurance policy, according to Administrator Edward Sealover.

Mr. Wilson did not return several phone calls last week.

The zoo's animals also are at the heart of the issue. The zoo operators are worried about their care and maintaining the paid staff of five during the shutdown, especially with the loss of admissions.

The zoo generates about $160,000 a year from visitors. The remainder of its $240,000 budget comes from a support foundation, which donates from $10,000 to $20,000 a year, and the county.

The government has issued a check to the zoo to cover expenses during the closure, Mr. Sealover said.

Mr. Conner contends it is not enough. "How long is $12,000 going to last?" the zoo director said. "It costs $15,000 a month bare bones."

Plumpton Park is one of four zoos in Maryland. The Baltimore and Salisbury zoos are accredited by the American Zoo and Aquarium Association. The Catoctin Mountain Zoological Zoo in Thurmont and Plumpton Park are not.

On a recent sunny weekday, women and preschoolers roamed through the park. "I like the smallness of it," said Roswitha Shogren of Churchville, who was pushing 11-month-old Patrick Craig in a stroller. "He just loved the animals," she said.

"It's a really pleasant atmosphere," said Lynn Zarolli of Newark, Del. "It's not typical with cages like the Philadelphia Zoo. You can let the kids run around and not worry."

Mr. Conner was the ticket-taker that day. "No one is less willing than me to put two-legged or four-legged animals at risk," he said.

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