With new attention and funds, zoo can keep elephants, for now

Long-term solutions still needed, officials say

November 21, 2003|By June Arney | June Arney,SUN STAFF

Dolly and Anna, the Baltimore Zoo elephants, won't have to leave home - at least for a while.

A hastily organized rescue operation has produced pledges of $500,000 from area business leaders and a promise of financial support from Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. to help save the zoo from financial disaster.

Zoo officials said two weeks ago that Dolly and Anna would be shipped out on breeding loan in a move aimed at slashing costs and keeping the zoo gates open. The layoffs of 20 zoo workers and permanent departure of about 400 other animals also were announced.

They said the zoo faced a $750,000 operating deficit in the first quarter of next year and potential insolvency if a shortfall - caused in part by a $700,000 cut in state aid - was not corrected.

"The Baltimore Zoo is one of Maryland's great treasures," Ehrlich said in a statement released late yesterday. "Both the public and private sectors are committed to raising the funding needed to get the zoo on solid financial footing."

Elizabeth "Billie" Grieb, president of the zoo, said the aid pledges represented an important first step toward returning the zoo to financial health and keeping the elephants in Maryland.

"I'm feeling a lot better than I have in the last couple weeks," she said. "I was hopeful that we'd get a strong response across the entire community, but you never know until it happens."

The public-private rescue package was put together Tuesday night at a meeting attended by Ehrlich, Comptroller William Donald Schaefer and about two dozen high-powered area business leaders at Dalesio's of Little Italy in Baltimore.

Ehrlich is committed to fixing the immediate financial shortfall as well as the long-term health of the zoo, according to a statement released yesterday by zoo supporters who said it had been approved by the governor's office.

"I don't want to mislead people into thinking we can keep the elephants unless we keep the zoo," Grieb said. "We still have a long-term funding problem that we need to solve. But it does give me a lot more confidence that we will solve the longer-term problem, because not only the public but the business community and, most importantly, the governor, have indicated that they care about the zoo."

"It sounds like something good is going to happen," Dennis M. Castleman, assistant secretary for tourism, film and the arts in the Department of Business and Economic Development, said yesterday. "Anything that the governor does to help the Baltimore Zoo will certainly be good for tourism and the economic engine that it is."

In the weeks since the zoo's Nov. 4 announcement of cutbacks - including putting Anna and Dolly out on "breeding loan" - donations of about $200,000 have poured in.

"The real message we want to give is we're very appreciative of all the support we're getting," Grieb said yesterday. "It makes me feel hopeful that we will solve the larger problem."

Zoo officials have said that if they didn't make the budget cuts, the zoo - the country's third-oldest - would go out of business in the first quarter of next year.

It would require an extra $1.2 million to $1.5 million annually for the zoo to keep all of the animals, make repairs, meet cash flow and avoid shrinking the operation, zoo officials have said.

The planned reduction in the zoo's animal collection includes sending some cranes, flamingos, ducks, reptiles and amphibians to other zoos.

The relocation of those animals is likely to proceed anyway, Grieb said yesterday, because zoo officials want the collection to be more focused in the future.

The animals that have been identified to go to other zoos do not fit into Baltimore's focus on wilderness and environmental hot spots.

The plight of the zoo and its animals has drawn a passionate response from schoolchildren wanting to sell T-shirts and from citizens writing letters to the editor and sending electronic messages suggesting such things as a nickel donation from the Orioles for every bag of peanuts sold in the coming season.

Super Fresh has enabled shoppers to make a gift to the zoo at the cash register.

"It's an attraction we can't lose," said Paul Oliver, owner of Dalesio's of Little Italy and a member of the Maryland Tourism Development Board. "Maybe as we sell the city, it's not on the radar, and it should be."

Oliver said he would like to see the zoo incorporated into packaged tour plans that include multiple Baltimore attractions and to see the zoo packaged with the National Aquarium. He suggested offering transportation to make it easier for visitors to get from the Inner Harbor to the zoo grounds.

"I think there are 100,000 more people who could go to the zoo than go now," he said.

Meanwhile, the zoo's workers, who unionized last winter as part of the United Steelworkers of America, have filed complaints with the National Labor Relations Board alleging that the zoo laid off workers without notifying or bargaining with the unit.

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