The Baltimore Zoo cries out for help

Desperate needs: $60 million modernization program requires private matching funds.

May 11, 2001

JUST AS hot weather and the prime tourist season are about to begin, the two decrepit trams that take visitors around the 161-acre Baltimore Zoo have conked out. It will cost roughly $400,000 to replace them, and the zoo doesn't have the money.

That's just one of the desperate needs of the 125-year-old zoo, located in Druid Hill Park.

On a Sunday a few weeks ago, a century-old pipe collapsed, interrupting water and sewage service to the zoo. Animals had to make do; restrooms were closed to 4,900 visitors.

"We are at a crossroads," says Roger C. Birkel, the zoo's executive director. "We have to close our doors if we cannot deal with these issues."

The Maryland Zoological Society, which operates the zoo, is in the midst of a $60 million campaign to overhaul the zoo's infrastructure and to improve creature comforts for its 2,000 animals. The state is pitching in $28 million. But the required city match has been cut from $14 million to $7 million because of a budget squeeze. The state share may be in jeopardy if the gap isn't bridged.

Private donors must step in.

Today's Baltimore Zoo is a truly metropolitan attraction that deserves support from throughout the region. The zoo may be located in the city but more visitors each year come from Baltimore County than from the city.

With a polar bear, white rhinos, elephants, tigers and a Noah's Ark of reptiles and birds, the Baltimore Zoo has come far since 1876, when it was created "for the purpose of public exhibition for the instruction and recreation of the people."

Its initial inventory consisted of 215 deer, 15 white rats, three swans, two black bears, one tiger cat and one duck. Its home, Druid Hill Park, was still in the country in those days. The city even employed a shepherd to oversee about 300 sheep that roamed the hilly expanse. The zoo was something of a sideshow.

By the 1940s its animal count had fallen from 502 specimens to 169. The nation's third oldest zoo became one of its smallest.

All that changed with the 1948 appointment of Arthur Watson as the first permanent zookeeper. Over the next three decades, he enthusiastically turned the neglected menagerie into a respected collection.

Today, the zoo is at a similar turning point. Its deteriorating infrastructure is on the brink of collapse. An array of knotty issues - from safety concerns to compliance with disability requirements - must be addressed. None of that will come cheaply.

The zoo also wants to reconfigure its exhibits. It plans to bring the Reptile House to the Main Valley from its current distant location outside the zoo area. Additional all-weather pavilions also are needed.

Plenty of wonderful naming opportunities exist for donors, although many of the zoo's needs are so basic that Carole Sibel, who chairs the capital campaign, quips that "no one wants to have a sewer named after them."

Each year, the Baltimore Zoo attracts about 600,000 visitors, including schoolchildren who are admitted free as part of a financing deal with the state. "In this market, we should be doing 1 million," says Mr. Birkel.

But even though the zoo is only a few miles from the Inner Harbor, it has never been able to draw substantial numbers of out-of-town visitors. This is a pity. Just the top-rated Children's Zoo and African Watering Hole are worth the 10-minute cab ride.

The Baltimore Zoo is a magical place for kids of all ages. It must be saved and improved. Each of us can help by sending a check to the Baltimore Zoo, Druid Hill Park, Baltimore, Md., 21217.

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