Zoo needs marketing ideas by trunkful

March 30, 2008|By DAN RODRICKS

Our zoo needs money so it can remain accredited by some snooty zoological society types, so here's an idea: Sell the naming rights to the new baby elephant. We could end up with something like Comcast the Elephant at the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore. I realize that twists the tongue, but we could be talking hundreds of thousands to keep the lights on and the lions fed.

Or maybe this would work:

The Constellation Energy Elephant at the Maryland Zoo - $1 million in utility rebates over the next 10 years and the state forgets all questions about the 1999 deregulation deal. Mrs. Shattuck gets to ride the elephant in her Ravens cheerleader outfit during Zoomerang, but that's a small concession in the interests of keeping the 132-year-old zoo open to the public.

If you don't like these ideas - too corporate, too icky - then we go the solid, old-fashioned route that apparently hasn't occurred to anyone at the zoo yet: Let the kids name the baby elephant - and charge them a buck per entry.

(Pardon me while I have an interlude. In 1920, an estimated 100,000 Maryland schoolchildren donated their pennies to bring the first elephant to the Baltimore Zoo. The kids' crusade prevailed, and a citywide contest resulted in the first elephant being named Mary Ann. Now, back to today's column, still in progress ... )

I went to the zoo on Friday, paid $11 admission and couldn't see the baby elephant. He was indoors.

They had a nice picture of him on the deck overlooking the elephant compound, but apparently the baby wasn't ready for public display.

Proboscidean pediatricians know better than I. If the calf wasn't ready, he wasn't ready.

But he's certainly ready for a name. He was born nearly two weeks ago, after his mother's 22-month pregnancy, and the zoo still hasn't announced a name-the-baby effort, a public relations no-brainer if there ever was one.

(Pardon me while I have another interlude: I don't like the phrase "no-brainer" and don't use it much because, to the best of my knowledge, the brain is needed for everything, including the "paper or plastic" question, and, in my experience, the people who use this phrase most frequently tend to be in management and not particularly good at it.)

That the zoo has not done more with the baby elephant, the first born up on Druid Hill, indicates a lack of either marketing sophistication or staff experience, and if the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore is to not only survive but thrive, it will need both.

If the zoo wants the public's help - if it wants our support and patronage, if it wants forgiveness of debts to government and probably additional funds from government - then it needs to get on the stick and show some zeal for marketing to create foot traffic in the cyber age.

(Pardon another interlude: In the future, the zoo might want to re-evaluate how much money it spends on lobbying. According to records, the Artemis Group lobbied for the zoo for three years, making $964,162 between 2004 and 2006. All that, and the zoo still stands to lose its accreditation - in part because of the low wages it pays its workers.)

There's new management, with one of the community's most astute and credible public servants, Don Hutchinson, who served as Baltimore County executive and as president of the Greater Baltimore Committee. Hutch has been zoo president since January, and he has inherited accreditation problems that will be licked only with smart management and more funds.

It's doubtful that even an accreditation loss would lead to the zoo's demise.

Still, having a thriving zoo - an exciting destination that draws visitors from all over the country - should be what Baltimore aims for in the next 20 years. The Maryland Zoo of the future should be so green, so progressive in its mission, that it will draw national attention. That takes more than just traditional thinking. That takes big vision and big funds, and probably a partnership with a university. We are not talking about a few coats of paint but a deep-future makeover that creates an environment far more educational than recreational, that teaches children a holistic green-think that should be part of every Maryland school system's curriculum.

(Pardon one more interlude: I am not a big fan of zoos. They depress me. Wild animals do not belong in captivity, for the amusement of humans. But the world these animals come from is poverty-stricken and environmentally scavenged; the reality is most zoo animals live longer than they would in the wild, and many species - classified as endangered, threatened or vanishing - might not exist at all outside of zoos and preserves. These realities hit you as you watch a leopard pace behind chain-link and release an odd growl-groan or as you gaze upon a moping sitatunga as it stands motionless by a poured-concrete boulder. Such is our world.)

Great cities have traditionally had great zoos, and over the years ours has tried to keep pace with trends. The exhibits are far more inviting and humane than the ones baby boomers saw as kids. But the American zoo of the future needs to reach for a much higher level of sophistication and public service, and there's no reason ours could not lead the way.

In the meantime, let's just name the baby elephant.

dan.rodricks@baltsun.com

Sun readers can offer their names for the Maryland Zoo's baby elephant by visiting baltimoresun.com/elephants. Dan Rodricks' column appears each Thursday and Sunday. He also hosts "Midday" from noon to 2 p.m. each Monday through Thursday on 88.1 WYPR.

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