Zoo's blues

Baltimore's financial struggles reflected across the country

March 26, 2007|By Nicole Fuller | Nicole Fuller,Sun Reporter

Throughout the sprawling Maryland Zoo in Baltimore, it seems as though virtually everything is in dire need of repair: cracked wooden steps at the mansion, old and leaky roofs, broken gates. For too long, officials say, the zoo's finances have been so abysmal that much of the needed maintenance was simply ignored.

And in a move last week that highlighted how grim the financial situation has become, the zoo's board decided to cancel a plan to take in three elephants from Philadelphia this summer. The reason: The zoo was unable to raise the private financing for an exhibit expansion to accommodate the animals.

Across the country, although zoos are generally healthy and thriving, a slump in philanthropic giving has caused some to scale back ambitious plans to expand exhibits. Limitations on public funding also tell part of the story. But variables as uncontrollable as weather and location are factors in the financial struggles.

For example, the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Gardens has laid off about a dozen employees in the past three months, partly because of a decrease in government subsidies.

In Philadelphia, home to the nation's oldest zoo, government funding for the facility totals 5 percent of its operating costs, leaving the zoo to rely heavily on attendance and fundraising to generate revenue. The zoo's plans to re-create its elephant exhibit fell flat after a huge capital campaign failed to raise funding for the project, prompting the decision to give the animals to the Maryland Zoo.

By contrast, the zoo in Pittsburgh has embarked on an ambitious plan, acquiring land outside the city for an elephant park.

"Exhibits and caring for live animals is not an inexpensive proposition," said Steve Feldman, a spokesman for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, a Silver Spring accreditation group. "They're living collections. So zoos take a very sort of solid approach [to budgeting] for that reason. You don't want to get too far ahead of yourself, because the animals are counting on you."

For many zoos, conservation and breeding efforts - traditionally part of their core mission - are also turning out to be a way to boost admissions. This month at the Louisville Zoo, when an African elephant delivered her first calf, weighing in at 285 pounds, its Web site screamed, "It's a boy!"

The Bank of America Big Cat Falls exhibit in Philadelphia, featuring lions, jaguars and tigers, opened to record crowds last year, said Vikram Dewan, president and CEO of the Philadelphia Zoo. And when the Maryland Zoo's polar bears, Magnet and Alaska, were thought to be expecting a cub, crowds in Baltimore surged.

It seems as though there's no model for the most successful way to fund a zoo. The National Zoo in Washington, which does not charge an admission fee, is part of the Smithsonian Institution, enabling it to rely on the federal government for funding. The Kansas City Zoo, which sits on 202 acres of rolling hills, was once part of the state's park system but is now operated by a nonprofit group. The San Diego Zoo in California, which has an annual operating budget of nearly $160 million, receives no state funding at all - though it's helped by about 3 million visitors a year.

"It is easier to get money to build exhibits or to buy animals than it is to get money for light bulbs, toilet paper, infrastructure repairs, new roofs; and so many zoos are real cognizant of that," said Mark C. Reed, the executive director of the 247-acre Sedgwick County Zoo in Wichita, Kan., a 35-year-old zoo run by a public-private partnership.

"And Baltimore, from what I gather ... Baltimore was underfunded for years and years by the city. A lot of infrastructure was ignored," Reed said.

There's no one cause of the Maryland Zoo's difficulties - officials blame a combination of stagnant government funding, rising costs and a decrease in visitors - but an impending increase in state and city aid could enable the zoo to regain its footing.

Mayor Sheila Dixon proposes an additional $235,000 for the zoo in the city's budget for next year, and zoo officials are awaiting word from the state on their request for an extra $4 million. Meanwhile, Maryland Zoo President Elizabeth "Billie" Grieb said she has received support from officials to pay for much-needed infrastructure improvements with the $5.5 million the state had pledged for the elephant exhibit.

"As we look back over the past 15 years or so, we didn't really get any increase in public funding," Grieb said, referring to the 1 percent average increase in state funding the zoo has received since 1993. "But our expenses continued to rise, so the only way to continue to operate was to defer maintenance. And it got to the point where the place started to fall down and we're looking at possible safety issues for our staff, and we can't have that."

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