Zoo train back on track

A two-way radio bounces off Karl Kranz's corduroys and a red bandanna threatens to come out of his back pocket as he pulls back the covering from his train. He's showing off the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore's new toy, a bright-red replica of the 1863 C.P. Huntington.

Zoo staffers are working on several capital projects during the offseason, including replacing the kiddie train, an attraction missing since 2005. The new version is slightly larger and will run on a longer, one-mile route that includes a 105-foot-long bridge, scheduled to be erected next week.

"We couldn't get parts anymore, so we bought a new train," Kranz, the zoo's chief operating officer, says. "It's a different gauge, slightly bigger, and so we couldn't use the old track."

The $2.6 million project, which includes work on the station and tracks, is one of several upgrades completed or scheduled at the zoo. Recent improvements include bathroom refurbishing and a new giraffe-feeding area. Other changes, including drainage and fire-alarm upgrades, were necessary to maintain the zoo's national accreditation, which was in jeopardy during the 2008 season.

The accreditation scare came amid financial problems, which in recent years triggered measures such as a rise in ticket prices and a cutback in operating days. Zoo President and CEO Don Hutchinson says that while the situation has stabilized, the lack of a reserve fund means that small, unanticipated problems could become emergencies.

In turn, he says, a reserve fund will be tough to create as long as the zoo must continue "revising down" its budget based on declines in government spending. Still, Hutchinson says, the zoo has managed to pay vendors and staff on time - something that didn't always happen in the past.

Improvements such as the new train could boost zoo attendance and improve the financial picture. Kranz doesn't expect the train to be quite as popular as the one at his last zoo, near the Florida headquarters of railroad company CSX. But zoo staffers predict the ride will be used by 20 percent to 30 percent of visitors, enough to keep it from running at a loss.

The change in track gauge brought about some layout adjustments, including the bridge near the back of the zoo.

"We've had a train track and many different trains over the years," said zoo spokeswoman Jane Ballentine, standing on a walkway near the planned bridge. "So, historically, we've had a train that's been in this area."

The train that was retired in 2005 ran between the Village Green area and an off-exhibit animal area. An earlier ride went around what is now the penguin exhibit, Kranz says.

Along with the railroad construction, changes in the works include the renovation of the zoo's historic Maryland Building; upgrades to the polar bears' environmental filtration system; construction of a new sitatunga barn; and the installation of a new X-ray system for the animals.

Some projects are more glamorous than others, but Kranz says each has value. For example, the X-ray upgrade, he says, will allow veterinary staffers "to look right away and see if they got what they needed. [Now] they take the pictures back to the hospital and develop" them.

Kranz has helped set the zoo's priorities on capital projects since coming to Baltimore in 2005 as general curator. In previous jobs at zoos in Jacksonville, Fla., and Philadelphia, he held administrative and curatorial roles.

"I was always impressed with how he was systematic - very logical with issues. He was an easy guy to work for, but also at the same time knew how to get things done," says Craig Miller, a curator who worked with Kranz in Florida.

Kranz, who as a child entered a Virginia opossum in a pet contest and as an undergraduate studied biology, says he got into zoos "by accident" through volunteer work in the 1970s at the National Zoo in Washington. Taking advantage of a grant that allowed him to work with research scientists while finishing his master's degree in biology, he graduated from George Mason University in 1985.

Throughout his career, colleagues say, Kranz has been active in conservation and research. It was during a trip to Liberia researching duikers, a type of antelope, that Kranz met his wife of 25 years, Susie.

"I was a Peace Corps volunteer, and he was there doing research on a University of Florida grant," she says, "and I was there eating the endangered species."

The Kranzes and daughter Elizabeth live with three horses, a miniature donkey and a Nubian dairy goat in New Park, Pa., just north of Harford County.

Kranz applies his knack for infrastructure at home by gardening and keeping things well-maintained, his wife says.

Hutchinson says there will be no shortage of opportunities for Kranz to apply that energy at work: The blackfoot penguin collection, for which the zoo is nationally known, will need a new exhibit within five years.