Forget about zoo's plan to add 3 elephants

March 21, 2007|By Nicole Fuller | Nicole Fuller,sun reporter

The Maryland Zoo in Baltimore announced yesterday the cancellation of plans to bring three African elephants from Philadelphia, citing a delay in the expansion of its elephant exhibit amid a dire financial situation.

The elephants were scheduled to arrive in late spring or early summer from the Philadelphia Zoo - a move that Maryland Zoo officials had hoped would accelerate its breeding program and deliver a much-needed boost in attendance at the zoo in Druid Hill Park, which has suffered financially in recent years from a decline in visitors.

Already dealing with a record budget deficit because of rising maintenance costs and slumping attendance, the zoo's board concluded it would be more prudent to concentrate on turning around budget shortfalls rather than taking on more costs, said Elizabeth "Billie" Grieb, the zoo's president and chief executive.

The Maryland Zoo, home to two African elephants, had planned an $11 million upgrade to its exhibit, adding 6 acres of space and a half-mile walking trail for the creatures, and a new barn - much-needed accommodations for the larger herd.

Construction had begun on renovation of the exhibit's existing barn, but further work has been delayed because the zoo has been unable to raise the money to fund the project. The state has pledged $5.5 million, leaving zoo officials to find the rest of the money through private donations.

"It didn't seem to be the best option to increase our operating costs and devote so much capital to this project right at this moment, when we really want to put the zoo on solid financial footing and really address the structural needs of our aging campus," Grieb said in a telephone interview yesterday.

"I hope what it says to visitors is that we are looking at the whole zoo and trying to make decisions about what's best for the whole visit," she added. "But I think right now, for the next year or two, we'll focus on things that are not as incredibly expensive as bringing in new elephants."

Although zoo officials publicized the elephants' arrival in an announcement celebrating a record number of attendees at the 131-year-old attraction's opening weekend this month, Grieb said the zoo's board and its executive committee had been in discussions for weeks over the future of the elephant exhibit because of the inability to raise capital funding for the project.

They decided yesterday that the zoo would be unable to accommodate Philadelphia's female elephants - Petal, Kallie and Bette - on the previously agreed-upon timetable.

"We were very excited about Maryland as a home for our elephants," said Andrew Baker, vice president for animal programs at the Philadelphia Zoo. "We thought Maryland had a great staff and plans for expansion and would have provided a great home. It was very disappointing, but nevertheless we're optimistic that we're going to find a great new home for them."

For years, the Maryland Zoo has struggled financially as its funding, largely subsidized by the state, has increased by an average of about 1 percent annually since 1993. Late last year, zoo officials requested an additional $4 million from the state, pointing to a $3 million budget deficit for the fiscal year that will end in June. The zoo's annual operating budget is about $12 million.

Working to cut operating costs, the zoo has closed in January and February since 2005 -months with little attendance. Last year, the zoo tallied about 332,000 visitors. A standard adult admission is $15 - a price that zoo officials concede might curtail attendance, but they said it is necessary to generate revenue.

In 2003, after laying off 20 employees and sending more than 400 animals to other facilities in a major cost-cutting plan, zoo officials considered lending their two elephants - Dolly and Anna - to another zoo. Keepers at the zoo have tried unsuccessfully for two years to artificially inseminate Dolly. And though all the elephants from Philadelphia were females, there were hopes that the two of them at prime breeding age could become pregnant through insemination at the zoo.

After a public outcry over the possible move of Dolly and Anna, and a bevy of donations and millions of dollars in emergency aid from the administration of then-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., the elephants stayed. There was also a name change from what was formerly the Baltimore Zoo.

Zoo officials in Philadelphia said yesterday they will work closely with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums - a Silver Spring-based accreditation body to which both the Maryland Zoo and the Philadelphia Zoo belong - to find a new home for their three elephants. Like their counterparts in Maryland, zoo officials in Philadelphia were unable to raise money through a capital campaign to build a new elephant exhibit on their grounds, which prompted them to look for a new home for the elephants.

Steven Feldman, a spokesman for the AZA, said the organization's elephant species survival planners will immediately begin the process of evaluating where the best home would be for the animals. Out of the 79 elephant-holding institutions in North America accredited by the AZA, 61 plan to expand or build new elephant exhibits in the next five years, he said.

"Because [of] the state of these facilities, because the elephant population is always changing, we have to perform a new assessment," Feldman said. "We love animals, and we care about them a lot, and we want to make sure they find a good home. And this is a process we went through to place them in Maryland, and it's a process we'll go through again to place them in a great home."

nicole.fuller@baltsun.com

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