New zoo director has big dreams

June 27, 1995

The new director of the Baltimore Zoo has only been on the job about two months, so many of his ideas are only dreams right now. But Roger Birkel promises he will soon have some concrete proposals and cost estimates for future zoo improvements. That's something to look forward to. The zoo has made great strides toward modernization in the last 10 years. But there are still some animals being kept in antique cages that long ago should have themselves been placed in a museum.

At 119 years old, the Baltimore Zoo is the third oldest in the country. Former zoo director Brian Rutledge oversaw the replacement of several of the oldest exhibits with spacious, modern habitats that are more comfortable to the animals and appear more realistic to visitors. The children's zoo, featuring domestic animals, is one of the finest in the country. And the newest exhibit, a chimpanzee house that looks like part of a jungle overgrown with bamboo, should open in August. But much more needs to be done.

The zoo's ancient water pipes have created an infrastructure problem that may have to be addressed before anything else. Mr. Birkel wants to deal with the leaky pipes as part of the rejuvenation of the zoo's main valley. That would include moving the tigers from their Victorian age cages. The new director wouldn't stop there, though.

One of Mr. Birkel's last assignments at the St. Louis Zoo was heading the design and construction team for The Living World, an $18 million education and visitor's center. He envisions a similar welcome center for Baltimore -- an auditorium for lectures or movies, display halls for exhibits on conservation, an indoor dining area. Its rooms could be rented for corporate meetings, weddings, bar mitzvahs. It could bring in additional income. And the zoo is going to need more income. Its current $8.5 million budget won't pay for all the work that needs to be done there.

The city's annual support for the semi-privatized zoo is down to $300,000, only about 3.6 percent of its budget. City voters last year approved a bond issue that included $2.2 million for zoo improvements and in 1993 the city provided $1 million toward the now almost completed chimpanzee habitat. But Mr. Birkel is going to have to reassess all of the zoo's funding sources, not just the city. For example, the zoo gets only 1 percent of its budget from county grants, although 67 percent of its in-state visitors come from Anne Arundel, Harford, Howard, Carroll and Baltimore counties.

The Baltimore Zoo had a record attendance of 611,000 visitors last year. That sounds good until you compare it to the 2.7 million visitors to the St. Louis Zoo each year. Mr. Birkel says more tourists should be directed from the Inner Harbor to the zoo. He's right. It's only 10 minutes away.

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