Zoo's elephants must pack their trunks

Budget cuts cost 20 jobs

most visitors will miss the popular pachyderms

November 05, 2003|By June Arney and Lorraine Mirabella | June Arney and Lorraine Mirabella,SUN STAFF

The Baltimore Zoo is being forced to lend out its beloved elephants Dolly and Anna - victims of budget cuts that claimed 20 jobs and are forcing the removal of about 400 reptiles, amphibians and birds, zoo officials said yesterday.

The loss of the two female elephants will be the most visible sign of the zoo's struggle to stay afloat after a $700,000 reduction in state aid, compounded by a sagging economy and a year of terrible weather.

Outplacing the elephants is expected to save more than $100,000, including the salaries of four zookeepers who work almost exclusively on their care, officials said yesterday. In total, the changes and job cuts are expected to save the zoo more than $1 million.

"If we didn't make the cuts, we would go out of business in the first quarter of 2004," said Billie Grieb, president of the zoo. "We couldn't ignore that and just hope. We wouldn't do this unless we had to."

Zoo officials hope the two elephants can be bred and then return to Baltimore, with their young, in a few years when the zoo is financially stronger. It is too expensive to try breeding them here, zoo officials say.

It might take six months or longer to find homes for the elephants, both in their late 20s, zoo officials said. They must be kept in temperatures that are 50 degrees and above, so relocating them in the winter could prove challenging.

The planned reduction in the zoo's animal collection also entails sending some cranes, flamingos and a number of ducks, reptiles and amphibians to other zoos. The animals that are being chosen do not fit into the zoo's new focus on wilderness and environmental hot spots.

"It's two elephants and many frogs and ducks," said Dr. Mike Cranfield, director of animal management, research and conservation. "They're not going to be really high profile. So it's not like the public will come in and say, `There's nothing here."'

But it is still troubling.

"I've been here 22 years and we've never had to do this," he said. "But I think it's going to make us a stronger zoo in some ways. Through the pain, we have refocused a lot better than we have in the past."

Grieb recognizes the potential marketing loss in giving up the high-profile elephants.

"Of course we're concerned, and we're going to miss them ourselves," she said. "But they're all the way at the end of our campus, and a lot of people never get there. With our new polar bear exhibit and the other things we're doing, we think it's a better use of our resources."

Elephants, along with gorillas, are typically the most popular attractions at many zoos, said Jane Ballentine, a spokeswoman for the American Zoo and Aquarium Association.

"Gorillas and elephants seem to be the top, as we call them `charismatic mega-vertebrates,' as opposed to your not-as-charismatic snakes," Ballentine said.

"They're the big critters. They're exciting. You really can only see them in the wild, if you're lucky enough to be on safari, or at a zoo. They're the animals, along with polar bears, that capture the imagination. When you're talking to a group of small children who look up and see these amazing animals, it's a wow moment."

It's hard to say whether the loss of the elephants will hurt attendance, she said.

"Certainly they're an animal people look for at the zoo," she said. "They are a draw. There's something about elephants that appeals to people. They can become very attached to them."

Protected species

Ballentine said she expects Baltimore's elephants to find a good home in another accredited zoo because they are protected by a species survival plan, a nationwide management system for various species. A system coordinator is expected to work with Baltimore zoo officials to find the best placement for the animals based on their genetic backgrounds and personalities, she said.

The Baltimore Zoo is the third oldest in the country. The 20 job cuts announced yesterday represent a staff reduction of 11.7 percent that will bring employment down to about 150 people.

Job losses for the year are expected to total about 35, including positions that were not filled when they became vacant and those of people who were fired for poor performance and not replaced, Grieb said.

The cuts come within weeks of the opening of the zoo's new $7 million Polar Bear Watch exhibit, which features a tundra buggy from which visitors can view the polar bears. The 57-foot-long, 12-foot-high, 25-ton, climate-controlled observation vehicle is the type used to observe animals in the wild.

"There's a certain irony associated with that," Grieb said. "There's some money that's been given to us that can only be used for capital projects. We're in the position of having the money to build but being very pinched in terms of having the money to operate."

In recent years, the state has given the zoo more than $28 million to pay for capital projects to update the aging facility.

In a cost-cutting move earlier this year, the zoo outsourced its food and beverage service to Aramark.

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