Maryland Zoo wins accreditation

Yearlong delay ends after officials outline infrastructure improvements and efforts to shore up finances

September 15, 2008|By Melissa Harris | Melissa Harris,

The Maryland Zoo in Baltimore won national accreditation yesterday after a yearlong delay that forced the 132-year-old facility to repair neglected infrastructure, increase its lowest salaries, and secure a line of credit to avoid layoffs and defaulting on vendors.

The Association of Zoos and Aquariums, meeting in Milwaukee over the weekend, issued the accreditation after top zoo officials outlined more than $650,000 in recent infrastructure improvements, a 5 percent salary increase for some employees, and progress on drainage and fire-alarm upgrades.

Had the zoo lost its accreditation, the Druid Hill Park attraction could have remained open. But it would have had difficulty acquiring animals on loan from other zoos and would have had to withdraw from breeding programs, which bring baby animals to the park and drive media and public interest.

Zoo President Donald P. Hutchinson said that although he was "elated" with the reaccreditation, the stamp of approval doesn't give the facility any breathing room. Decades of neglect, he said, must be undone and attendance must grow.

"One of the bittersweet things that happen when you have a success like this is that sometimes it lets people breathe too easily," said Hutchinson, a former Baltimore County executive who was hired in January to revitalize the facility. "Part of my job is not to let anyone involved with the zoo to breathe easily. There is still so much more to do."

On the immediate horizon are a $1 million water drainage project; a 10 percent salary increase for animal keepers; a half-million-dollar restoration to the exterior of the Maryland House; replacement of the roof on the animal hospital; renovations to dining facilities; and additional storage space, according to a report from the zoo to the association.

The zoo has been accredited since 1980. In addition to private donations, its operating expenses are covered by the state, city and Baltimore County.

Yesterday, Christine Hansen, a spokeswoman for Gov. Martin O'Malley, congratulated Hutchinson on the re-accreditation and said it meant the zoo was moving "in the right direction."

In 2007, state and local governments bailed out the institution with $3 million, and this year told the zoo to look elsewhere first. The Abell Foundation co-signed a bank loan to cover a projected $1 million deficit this year, and the city forgave more than $400,000 in overdue water bills.

Still, the cost of repairs well exceeds the zoo's annual operating budget of $12.5 million.

"We have an estimate for just one area of the zoo, Africa, and in order to bring it all up to current standards, it's going to cost on the order of $5 million," said Karl Kranz, the zoo's chief operating officer.

Kranz said in the Africa exhibit, the rhinoceroses need a new kitchen, employees need better bathrooms, and buildings need lightning protection. He said that the problems didn't happen "overnight."

"There has been a 25- to 30-year period of time where only the very basics of what needed to be done got done," Kranz said. "Now the sheer weight of everything that's wrong is all-consuming. It affects the visitor experience, and how we take care of animals. It's nobody's fault, and it's everybody's fault."

The zoo has been buoyed in recent months by mild weather, a baby elephant, a new giraffe feeding exhibit and a brief visit from a baby camel. Hutchinson said attendance in July and August "spiked by about 25 percent over last year," but said that banking on more baby animals is not the way to sustain the zoo.

"Babies all grow up, and visitors have to have other reasons to come back," he said.

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