Businesses would match gifts to zoo

If public gives $1 million by Feb. 14, they'll equal it

November 26, 2003|By Stacey Hirsh | Stacey Hirsh,SUN STAFF

With an outpouring of public support to keep elephants Dolly and Anna at the Baltimore Zoo, business leaders have pledged to match up to $1 million in donations if Maryland citizens can raise that much by Valentine's Day, the zoo announced yesterday.

Zoo President Elizabeth "Billie" Grieb said Maryland residents have donated $300,000 to the zoo since it was publicized early this month that the attraction needed to lend its elephants to other zoos and lay off workers to help cover a budget shortfall.

If the state's residents can increase that total to $1 million - and business leaders match it - Grieb said, the sum would remedy the zoo's short-term cash crunch and allow it to keep the elephants in Baltimore.

"It would ensure that we are able to keep Dolly and Anna, our beloved elephants, right here at the zoo," Grieb said at a news conference overlooking the Elephant House.

The Baltimore Zoo announced this month that it was laying off 20 workers, removing about 400 reptiles, amphibians and birds from the zoo and lending out its two elephants, a result of a $700,000 reduction in state funding, a struggling economy and a year of inclement weather that deterred visitors.

Officials have said the zoo would need an extra $1.2 million to $1.5 million annually to keep all of the animals, make repairs, meet cash flow needs and avoid shrinking its operation.

Initial public and private donations would help with the immediate financial problems, but zoo officials are still working on a long-term solution.

A public-private rescue package was put together at a Baltimore meeting last week attended by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., Comptroller William Donald Schaefer and about two dozen area business leaders. Ehrlich promised financial support, and business leaders pledged $500,000.

The companies pledging to help the zoo have asked that they remain anonymous, but they include financial institutions, utility companies and law firms, said Ben Gross, a zoo spokesman.

For business leaders to double their $500,000 pledge, the public must raise an additional $700,000 by Feb. 14 to bring its total donation to $1 million. That would mean an average donation of 20 cents per Maryland resident or $1.47 from each resident of Baltimore, Grieb said.

Grieb said yesterday that SuperFresh grocery stores are taking zoo donations at their checkout lines. She also announced that the zoo is planning a one-mile walk-a-thon Dec. 13 to raise money.

Despite public donations, the zoo cutbacks, other than the elephants, will remain intact, Grieb said yesterday.

"We still have to implement a long-term plan for fiscal stability," she said.

Zoo workers who unionized last winter as part of the United Steelworkers union have filed complaints with the National Labor Relations Board alleging that the zoo laid off employees without notifying or bargaining with the unit.

Several of the 95 employees in the bargaining unit also said they were mystified about the zoo's plan to lend out its elephants to save money. And some worried that the stress of moving the elephants could hinder their ability to breed.

Colleen Baird, an elephant keeper, described the past several weeks as an emotional roller coaster. She said the goal of breeding a baby elephant at the zoo is shared by zoo workers and management.

"We're definitely happy that they're staying, as long as we can get them bred," Baird said.

Baltimore's zoo has about 150 full-time workers.

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