Zoo off to a roaring good start

Free admission, warm weather accompany the opening of the zoo's 131st season

March 04, 2007|By a Sun Staff Writer

The weather was made to order, lines were long, admission was free and a whiff of freshly grilled food was inviting.

But it was the polar bears that had people talking yesterday at the inauguration of The Maryland Zoo in Baltimore's 2007 season.

"What are they doing?" asked 5-year-old Johnny Davis of Frederick.

"They're wrestling," his mother, Carol, answered before hurrying him off to another exhibit.

It wasn't long before zoo officials posted signs: "Polar Bear Mating Season."

But Elizabeth Grieb, president of the zoo, took it all in stride. "It's nature," she said.

An estimated 30,000 visitors were expected this weekend as the zoo begins its 131st year. The season will include the arrival of three African elephants as part of the zoo's effort to create a herd and develop a new exhibit.

The elephants will come from the Philadelphia Zoo and are expected in late spring. When renovations to the elephant barn are completed, work on the exhibit -- Elephant Trek -- will begin. That project will create trails over several acres that the elephants will walk for water, food or just exercise and expose the public to their behaviors in a natural setting.

"It will be more stimulating for the elephants because they will have to seek something," Grieb said. "And visitors will need to go find the elephants. There will be a more natural feel to it."

The project is not expected to be completed for about three years, she said.

There will be several other changes at the zoo this year, said Lainie Contreras, director of public information. Among them: the additions of a male okapi and an African crested porcupine; the African Aviary will reopen, offering smaller and more colorful African birds; the Giraffe Feed will return; a new carousel has been installed; and a Sunday evening concert series is planned.

Grieb stood on a walkway not far from the polar bear exhibit watching as the crowd grew. "I got my wish," she said. "I got my weather."

There was a downside. Traffic on Druid Park Lake Drive and the Jones Falls Expressway in both directions was heavy, causing severe backups and delays.

"I apologize for the inconvenience," Grieb told visitors during brief opening-day ceremonies. "But I'm thrilled that there are so many people."

Among those caught in the traffic was U.S. Rep. John Sarbanes, but he didn't complain. "It's an incredibly beautiful day," the freshman 3rd District Democrat declared.

He called the zoo a "fantastic institution" and said it is helping make "the next generation aware of nature."

Part of that generation is Nicki Wright, 15, of Baltimore. "I always come on opening days," she said while peering at a raven. "The zoo's great. I go several times a year."

Richard Belmont, 53, of Ellicott City watched a giraffe while he ate a grilled hot dog. "I love this place, but I don't come as often as I'd like," he said. "I think the changes they've made recently have been fantastic.

"It used to be just a lot of animals in cages. Now it's more natural."

The 160-acre zoo, which was founded in 1876, faces several challenges but none greater than overcoming a serious financial squeeze, Grieb said.

While expenses have risen considerably, she said, the zoo's funding from the state has increased "less than 1 percent a year."

It faces a record deficit and is seeking to double its current state aid of $4 million. The zoo has a $12 million annual operating budget.

Grieb said any additional funding would not come from increases in admission prices.

"One of the things about the zoo is that it's not elitist in any way," she said. "It's for everybody. You become elitist through your pricing."

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