More efficient zoo to reopen

Renovations: A two-month closure has allowed the financially troubled attraction to make cost-saving changes to ensure a stable future.

February 27, 2005|By Michael Hoffman | Michael Hoffman,SUN STAFF

It's been two months since the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore temporarily shut down and Magnet, the 925-pound polar bear, is getting lonely.

The zoo closed for most of January and February to cut costs and to renovate aging facilities in preparation for its busiest time, between May and September. It is scheduled to reopen Tuesday, and Magnet's zookeeper said the polar bear is eager for new guests.

"Magnet loves the attention," said Tanya White, one of the zookeepers at the Polar Bear Watch exhibit. "When he sees people taking pictures he'll go get his ball and be like, `Look, I'm going to throw the toy.'"

When the zoo reopens Tuesday, visitors will see a new $1.3 million renovation project that includes a new tram service and a face-lift for some exhibits such as the Polar Bear Watch and Maryland Wilderness.

New color-coded signs have been posted to make navigating the zoo easier, and three trams will shuttle about 90 visitors apiece to a central plaza near the entrances of the Polar Bear Watch and Africa exhibits.

Zoo President Elizabeth "Billie" Grieb said she hoped the changes would ensure a stable future for the 129-year-old zoo, which has suffered from financial instability and declining attendance in recent years.

"We made a number of changes like closing the Main Valley, consolidating the zoo and changing how we operate," she said. "We are now operating in a more responsible way."

Grieb said the renovation project was important to making the zoo more efficient.

The zoo's financial woes emerged in 2003 when it announced layoffs and cost-cutting measures such as lending its two elephants, Dolly and Anna, to other zoos. The zoo also eliminated the reptile house and gave up two snow leopards and four white-cheeked gibbons.

Reacting to a public outcry, the state came up with an emergency aid plan to help the zoo and keep the elephants home. Donations from local businesses and private contributors also helped to enhance the zoo's coffers. Along with the state money came a name change, and the Baltimore Zoo became the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore.

In 2002 the zoo drew 452,487 visitors, but just two years later attendance had fallen to 417,632 - a drop of 34,855. The zoo was averaging only about six people a day during the months it's now closed, said Ben Gross, a zoo spokesman.

To help boost attendance, the zoo has spoken with officials from the National Aquarium to create a shuttle service between the Inner Harbor and Druid Hill Park along with the possibility of combined ticketing, Grieb said.

The Maryland Zoo's operating budget is about $12 million annually, and it's not alone when it comes to money problems and sagging attendance.

Recently, zoos in Buffalo and Philadelphia had to make tough decisions to stay in business. But the local zoo is one of the few in the nation to take the drastic step of closing for such a long stretch. It's expected that the temporary shutdown will save about $50,000.

The temporary closure spared the zoo the costs of clearing snow and ice from pathways used by visitors, Grieb said. It also gave zoo officials time to make repairs without interfering with visitors during the busiest months, she added.

Because animals still need the same level of care when a zoo temporarily closes, some in the zoo field question whether it's a viable cost-saving measure. The zoo in Baltimore shut down for most of January and February with the exception of the Martin Luther King and Presidents Day holiday weekends.

Brian Rutledge, who served as the director of the old Baltimore Zoo for 13 years, said he faced money problems during his tenure, but he didn't support a temporary closure. The harm of closing the zoo outweighed the savings, which were relatively small, he said.

"Really the only people you don't bring in to work anyway are the visitor services," he said. "But I felt there would be a bunch of people being turned away."

Faced with financial problems, the Philadelphia Zoo raised its peak-season admission price by $1 and cut 16 percent of its staff this month. The Buffalo Zoo decided to close on Mondays and Tuesdays starting this month, to cut 25 percent of its staff including zookeepers and to place a number of its animals into other zoos.

But even though the Buffalo Zoo experiences much colder and snowier winters than Baltimore, spokeswoman Adair Saviola said it chose to stay open in the winter despite lower attendance numbers.

"Mostly it costs the same to run the zoo when it's open as it does when it's closed," she said. "Buffalo is a community that doesn't stop during the winter. If it's a nice day, people will come out."

Although this is the first time Baltimore's zoo has closed in the dead of winter, the Fort Wayne Children's Zoo in Indiana has closed during the colder months since it opened 40 years ago and it plans to continue to do so.

Grieb said the zoo in Baltimore would close for most of next January and February, too.

Already looking to the future, Grieb said there are plans for new exhibits such as Parakeet Landing, a large tropical bird aviary where visitors can feed birds. The Hippopotamus Building, one of the zoo's oldest fixtures, is slated to be torn down and replaced with a restaurant featuring outdoor seating.

The zoo's grand reopening weekend, scheduled for Friday through Sunday, will feature games, Irish dance, animal presentations and a visit from Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

"Everyone will be happy to hear the noises of the kids going through the zoo again," Grieb said.

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