Stars parade on opening day

Officials hope for financially successful year as zoo welcomes first visitors

March 15, 2009|By Jonathan Pitts | Jonathan Pitts,

She swung her legs from the rear compartment of the black limo, strode to the runway and posed for the cameras.

At 5 feet tall and weighing 7 pounds, Candy Crane has the svelte build a supermodel might envy. But at the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore yesterday, it was her endangered species status that made her a star.

Candy, a West African crowned crane, shook her wings and ambled through the gate, officially becoming the zoo's first admission for 2009, its 133rd year of operation.

"She walks a little like Groucho Marx," quipped interim zoo president and CEO Donald P. Hutchinson, as about 50 onlookers cheered. "Come on in, folks."

The mood was welcoming at the zoo, a facility that for years has been in financial straits. Though the zoo finished in the black last year, it wasn't easy.

On this brisk March day, volunteers, animal handlers and officials distributed brochures and smiles to the hundreds of guests who roamed the park's 164 acres.

Some were easily pleased. Unique Wilkerson, 9, and her cousin, Shaniya Monroe, 4, arrived early to stake out a spot by the "green carpet" - the stretch of artificial turf Candy and other "ambassador animals" walked during the Oscar-like opening. "I want to see elephants!" Shaniya cried. "They eat peanuts."

Nearby, Janet Trevillian of Linthicum cradled her granddaughter, Aliza Yi, 2, of Ellicott City. "I love the penguins," said Aliza's mother, Jenna Yi, whose parents had brought her to the zoo as a child. Adults paid $7 yesterday, $8 off the usual gate price. That's still more than in the old days, when opening-day admission was free.

It was one sign of the facility's continuing financial worries. The zoo, which has an annual operating budget of $12.5 million, exhausted its line of credit with Bank of America last spring and asked the nonprofit Abell Foundation to co-sign a $1.2 million bank credit from PNC. In September, the state announced a $194,000 cut in funding.

But Hutchinson sounded guardedly optimistic as he stood beside the entrance to the "African Journey" section yesterday. The zoo has paid down last year's debt, doubled its corporate donors to 102, and tripled corporate donations to $250,000. A decision to close two weeks early last year and open two weeks later this year saved about $50,000.

But the zoo, which incorporates animal care, veterinary services and entertainment, still has no reserve funds and no endowment, he said. "It's fascinating, but I've never seen [a business] like this," said Hutchinson, a former Baltimore County executive who started his current job last January.

If the zoo can draw more than the 350,000 guests it attracted last year, it could improve on last year's performance, said Terry Slade Young, executive vice president for institutional advancement. But much will depend on two factors: the weather and the economy. Yesterday's crowd seemed smaller than last year's 2,300 for opening day. But the vagaries of finance seemed as distant as Candy's native African habitat.

At the elephant enclosure, young Samson stood on his hind legs and brushed his trunk against curator and elephant manager Mike McClure.

Angela Mahoney of Columbia had rushed her sons, Kevin, 4, and Drew, 2, to the zoo to catch the baby elephant. "I like elephants a bunch," cried Kevin, who saw Samson last year at a mere 800 pounds.

Officials can only hope the zoo develops as quickly as their star attraction, who now tips the scales at 1,000 pounds.

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