The zoo blues

January 01, 2007

The budget woes of the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore come down to this: The gap between the cost of admission and the quality of the product has grown too great. Too much of the Druid Hill Park facility has been allowed to deteriorate in order to cut costs in the short term. It's not as accessible as it should be, and too many displays haven't kept up with the times. That's a difficult problem to solve.

Difficult, but not impossible - with the proper planning and investment. At one time, Maryland taxpayers financed more than half of the zoo's operating costs. Today, it's less than one-third. While revenue in the form of private donations and admissions charges has tripled since 1993, public funding has grown 1 percent a year. That is the root of the zoo's chronic underfunding.

Quality zoos are not cheap. Baltimore's runs on more than $12 million per year (although officials say one this size really needs about 50 percent more). But the money can't be raised entirely at the front gate. Right now, the zoo charges a daily adult admission of $15. That's much more than its peers and is simply not justified under the present circumstances. Predictably, attendance has fallen considerably.

But the zoo remains a valuable asset. It's hard to imagine a city or state - one that boasts major league sports and top-tier cultural attractions - without a respectable zoo. And Baltimore's has some nice amenities - the state-of-the-art polar bear exhibit, for one, would make any zoo proud. But that's the exception more than the rule, and one can only wonder what first-time visitors make of this once-proud and important 130-year-old institution.

Gov.-elect Martin O'Malley supported the zoo as mayor, but now he's in a position to really do something about it. Expecting state support to double from $4 million to $8 million next year, as zoo officials have requested, is not realistic, at least not with the state's own financial problems. But a substantial increase is justified (not just from the state but from the metropolitan counties, too) - if a long-range strategy can be developed to both upgrade the zoo and lower admissions prices.

Next spring, the zoo is scheduled to host three female African elephants from the Philadelphia Zoo and to launch a major renovation of that exhibit. It would also be a good time to herald a new era for the zoo - one in which only animals, and not budget deficits, can be described as elephantine.

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