The Maryland Zoo

May 04, 2004

THE RESIDENTS probably won't notice (wild animals being notoriously unconcerned about such things), but before the year is out, the Baltimore Zoo is going to have a new name: The Maryland Zoo in Baltimore. That's a mouthful even for a human. But it's also emblematic of some fundamental changes that are going on in this beloved city institution.

A mere six months ago, the zoo was in dire financial shape. Thanks to a cut in state aid and declines in attendance and donations, the zoo was hurting. Twenty employees lost their jobs. But far more distressing to zoo patrons, elephants Dolly and Anna were set to go next - to be shipped elsewhere for breeding.

The public rallied. Donations poured in. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. pledged his support. (The elephant being a GOP symbol didn't seem to hurt.) And within weeks, the elephants were staying put. And leaders vowed to make changes so that such a crisis would not happen again.

Those plans are now starting to take form. With Mr. Ehrlich's help, the cut in state aid has been restored. Beginning in July, the zoo will receive about $3.8 million in state aid, a 22 percent boost from the previous year. Plus, there'll be another $1.2 million in one-time help - to buy new trams to ferry patrons and to upgrade some aging facilities. Maryland's contribution now represents more than 30 percent of the zoo's $12 million annual budget - that's more than the zoo receives from gate receipts and membership dues combined.

The name change recognizes a reality that has existed for a decade - the zoo may still technically belong to the city, but it has become a state responsibility. The state leases it. A private nonprofit manages it. The city's financial contribution is a modest $300,000 or so each year. The more the rest of Maryland thinks of the zoo as theirs, the better off the institution will be.

Elizabeth "Billie" Grieb, the zoo's president, is developing a long-range plan to improve private donations and attendance. She's off to a good start. The zoo has received more than $850,000 in gifts during the first three months of this year - compared with less than $100,000 during the same period a year ago. Attendance is up slightly, as are memberships. The Maryland Wilderness exhibit is going to be refurbished this year, and the new trams will be running by fall.

Of course, the zoo isn't out of the woods yet. With its elephants no longer in the headlines, the zoo may be forgotten soon enough. Ms. Grieb also faces a long list of facilities that need to be upgraded - too much maintenance has been too long deferred. There may yet be more employee layoffs. And it could be years before the zoo builds up a private endowment that can begin to approach an adequate level.

Changing a name is no panacea. (If it were then we could be certain that the "Maryland Public Schools in Baltimore" would be next on the list). But if the Orioles can drop Baltimore from their road jerseys then the city can share billing on the zoo's welcome sign. It's a small price to pay for a still-great public asset.

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