Zoo in peril

Our view: Twin blizzards dealt the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore a serious setback just as the institution was regaining its footing

it's going to need help digging itself out

February 19, 2010

Only a few weeks ago, the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore was confidently anticipating a banner season of visitors to the 133-year-old facility. Officials were proudly showing off the improvements they had made during the off-season as part of their prolonged effort to bring the Druid Hill Park institution back from the brink of collapse.

The zoo had made fixes to the flaws that threatened its national accreditation in 2008 and refurbished its bathrooms and other facilities. The biggest change, though, was the return of the miniature railroad that had long chugged visitors around the zoo - actually, a new and improved version of the train that was to include a jaunt over a 105-foot-long bridge. Zoo President and CEO Donald P. Hutchinson said the financial woes that accompanied the accreditation scare had stabilized but that the lack of a reserve fund meant unanticipated problems could become real emergencies.

Then came twin blizzards that caused at least $1.5 million in damage to the zoo. The storms knocked down trees, destroyed two aviaries and caused a major spike in overtime costs as zoo workers scrambled to ensure the animals' safety. Making matters worse, the damage forced the zoo to push back its already delayed spring opening, putting a crimp in anticipated revenues from what traditionally has been the busiest part of its season.

The zoo may be able to recoup some of the losses sustained by its buildings and grounds from insurance and possibly federal disaster funds. But one thing is sadly all but certain: With state and local governments facing massive budget shortfalls of their own this year, the zoo can't expect much, if any, additional help from those sources, from which it already gets a third of its $12.5 million operating budget.

As it is, that's barely enough to keep the exhibits open and pay staff. In a town without many large corporate headquarters - and the large corporate gifts that go with them - Mr. Hutchinson has been trying to line up dozens of smaller companies and get them to commit to more modest annual contributions of $10,000 or so. Last year, he said that the zoo should ideally have a budget of at least $16.5 million to permanently stabilize its operations, keep up with long-term maintenance projects, regularly upgrade attractions and mount a more effective marketing campaign. And that was before the storm damage this month pushed the zoo even closer to the edge.

It would be a shame to see the zoo founder just at a time when it appeared to be regaining its footing. The Maryland Zoo may never be on quite the same level as the larger and more famous destination zoos in Washington and Philadelphia, with their panda bears and many rare or endangered species. But it has embraced its niche as a family-friendly amenity in the heart of Baltimore and taken the steps necessary to put itself on a sustainable path. Having served Baltimore's families and animal lovers for more than a century, the zoo is one of the city's most venerable institutions and surely deserves to continue its mission. Now is the time for the zoo's private benefactors to step up and support it.

Readers respond
It is wonderful that Baltimore has its own zoo, a treasure for veterinary students, biologists, wildlife experts, ornithologists and so on. Always exhilarating and instructive, zoos are repositories of knowledge for today's kids who grow up far from the wild in technological jungles.

By all means save the Baltimore zoo, where I have spent hours with my children, thoroughly fascinated by animals more beautiful than men.

Watcher

I've got to say that I am down on zoos. It seems so cruel to cage those wonderful animals in those little spaces. The way the big cats pace back and forth is heartbreaking. I wish the zoo could be more free roaming. I know that's hard in an urban area, and I also know zoos do preserve the lives of injured and endangered animals, but, still, it all seems so senseless. Having said that, we should do all we can to save the Baltimore zoo.

Sean Tully

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