Twin storms damage zoo, delay opening

"This is a big, big setback," said zoo president Donald Hutchinson, pictured next to the African aviary. "We're hoping that everyone who loves the zoo will help us bounce back."
"This is a big, big setback," said zoo president Donald Hutchinson, pictured next to the African aviary. "We're hoping that everyone who loves the zoo will help us bounce back." (Baltimore Sun photo by Algerina Perna)
This month's historic snowstorms caused at least $1.5 million damage at the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore, delaying its opening by up to a month and further threatening an institution that has struggled to emerge from financial difficulties.

After the zoo nearly lost its accreditation two years ago, its staff had worked to make improvements and put the facility on firm financial footing. But the costs of storm- related repairs, employee overtime and lost revenue pose a new challenge.

"This is a big, big setback," said the zoo's president, Donald Hutchinson, a former Baltimore County executive hired to revitalize the facility in 2008. "We're hoping that everyone who loves the zoo will help us bounce back."

Two aviaries - homes to gangly African spoonbills, wedge-headed mergansers and other birds - are in tatters. A huge limb has fallen from the leopard's preferred perch. And a long-eared owl is on the lam, circling the Druid Hill Park area in search of furry snacks.

Zoo employees worked around the clock through the storms, shoveling paths to enable food to be taken to the creatures' winter cages and sleeping at the old mansion that serves as the administrative offices. But they were no match for the weather.

The weight of the snow toppled posts that supported the wire mesh enclosures of the African and Chesapeake marsh aviaries. No birds were injured, but the owl and a teal, a type of duck, escaped.

The teal returned to join its mate, said Karl Kranz, the zoo's chief operating officer. But the owl, whose big yellow eyes and upward-pointing ears give it an expression of perpetual surprise, has eluded workers.

As the storms began, workers tried to shake snow off the aviaries, a dangerous job, but they were forced to give up in the face of blizzardlike conditions.

"The snow was coming so fast we just couldn't make any headway," said Mike McClure, the zoo's chief curator, who slept in his office much of last week.

After the mesh collapsed, workers jumped off a wall into a snowbank to fetch birds from a heated protective chamber in the African exhibit.

About 44 aquatic birds, including wood ducks, ruddy ducks and mergansers, remain in the Maryland aviary. Zoo officials have deemed the exhibit too dangerous to enter, so workers are leaving food in an antechamber.

The ducks paddled about in a pond Wednesday afternoon, oblivious to the sheets of snow-covered mesh that sagged above them. Titmice, nuthatches, chickadees and pairs of cardinals had squeezed through the wire to sample their food.

Several juncos flitted in the small trees in the aviary. "We see them a couple days before it snows," McClure said. "And we've seen them a lot this winter."

The zoo, which was closed for the winter, was scheduled to reopen March 1. But the opening will have to be postponed at least two weeks, Hutchinson said. And more snow could push the date further back.

Spring tends to be the zoo's busiest time, so missing a month could cut revenue substantially, Hutchinson said.

In addition to the African aviary, which was heavily damaged, and the Maryland aviary, which insurance adjusters declared a total loss, more than 60 trees or large limbs fell during the storms. A pine tree lay across the path to the reptile cave. Contractors are hacking and hauling downed trees.

Among the storms' victims was the lofty live oak in the African leopard's cage. In warmer weather, the leopard sprawled on its branches to watch gazelles frolic in a nearby enclosure.

It is unclear how much the zoo will be able to recoup from insurance or from federal disaster-relief funds. Hutchinson hopes that sponsors, donors and zoo members will help with the cost of repairs.

While polar bears and penguins naturally have been savoring the Arctic blasts, other zoo animals were enjoying the snow.

Toughie the elephant eschewed the track that had been dug for him to tramp around in the drifts, McClure said. The chimpanzees appeared shocked, but quickly started scampering about like "little nuts." And when the lions were let out to explore, it was hard to get them back inside, he said.

While the storms left the zoo's humans shaking their heads, a flock of orange flamingos strutted in a small pond, fluffing their feathers and scuffling over food. The birds have hearty vascular systems and handle the cold well, McClure said.

From a distance, their chatter sounded like a group of laughing children.

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