Sorry, but Dolly and Anna must go

November 09, 2003|By Billie Grieb

THERE HAS BEEN an outpouring of community support since the Baltimore Zoo announced that it eliminated 20 full-time positions and will reduce its animal collection. Donations topped $35,000 in three days, and many citizens have called.

The two most common questions are how did this happen (especially when the zoo just opened Polar Bear Watch), and how can we help?

Most of the attention is focused on the zoo's plan to send its two female African elephants, Dolly and Anna, to another zoo on a "breeding loan." The cry has been, "Save the elephants!" This expression of love for the zoo's pachyderms, while heartwarming, misses an important part of the zoo's message: It's time to cut costs to ensure fiscal viability so the 128-year-old institution will be here for another century.

It took years for the zoo's troubles to develop. Fear of terrorism after 9/11 was reinforced by last year's Washington-area sniper attacks, forcing many schools to cancel zoo trips. The state's fiscal crisis cost the zoo $700,000 in annual funding. Record rainfall during the spring and summer depressed zoo attendance. Tropical Storm Isabel added cleanup and repair costs. A perfect storm of adverse effects occurred.

The trustees and staff of the zoo saw the storm building. We knew that the responsible thing was to recognize that today's economy requires painful reductions. How could we expect the state, city and private community to provide long-term support if we were unwilling to take obvious, if unpleasant, steps to reduce our expenses? Virtually every household has felt the pinch of today's bad economy and made hard choices, postponing buying a new car, taking a shorter vacation closer to home, etc. Should the zoo be exempt from fiscal responsibility?

We developed a plan to eliminate over $1.2 million in expenses, including painful elimination of full-time positions and sending more than 400 animals to other institutions.

The decision to lend the elephants for breeding was not an attempt to bring media attention to our plight. Rather, it saves more than $225,000 per year while honoring recommendations that Dolly and Anna be bred before they are 30. Dolly is 27, Anna 28. Breeding them in Baltimore would require expensive artificial insemination, adding costs. Sending them out to breed is an obvious solution.

If the elephants stayed, we would need to eliminate many other animals. While the elephants are gone, we can make needed improvements to their barn and viewing areas.

Will we miss Dolly and Anna? Absolutely. Our elephant keepers have spent years preparing the girls for reproductive procedures and will miss the excitement of breeding and pregnancy. If a funding miracle were to occur, we would be thrilled to keep the elephants right here for the rest of their long lives.

Our decision was about the zoo, not just Dolly and Anna. It was made through strategic deliberation, not panic. Our goal is the long-term financial health of the zoo.

The plan to the build Polar Bear Watch began eight years ago. The money for it was restricted to new construction and was never available to avoid the current situation.

How can the public help? Join and visit the zoo, make a donation and tell your elected representatives that the zoo is important to you. Your support of the zoo has never been more important, and your anguish over Dolly and Anna is reassuring. It proves that the zoo is a community treasure, and the community is key to its long-term future.

Billie Grieb is president and CEO of the Baltimore Zoo.

Leonard Pitts Jr.'s column will return next Sunday.

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