Ailing zoo $10,000 richer

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Across the Baltimore region yesterday, people had the same idea: help the Baltimore Zoo out of its financial crisis and save two elephants who may be sent into exile because they are too expensive to care for.

Some called in a total of $10,000 in donations. A radio station, a cable channel, a number of zoo members and even middle school classes all offered to help raise more cash. An administrative assistant at the zoo's hospital resigned and said she would do her job for free.

They were reacting to the announcement Tuesday that the Baltimore Zoo had laid off 20 people and would be reducing its collection by about 400 animals. Zoo officials said the popular elephants, Dolly and Anna, would be sent someplace where they could be bred and cared for.

Zoo officials have said that if they didn't make the budget cuts, the zoo would go out of business in the first quarter of next year.

Zoo leaders welcomed yesterday's outpouring of sympathy. "I'm feeling much better today than yesterday," said Billie Grieb, president of the zoo. Callers, who kept the zoo phones busy all day, pledged $10,000, she said.

"The feeling around the zoo is much more upbeat," Grieb said yesterday. "I think there is a real feeling here of pulling together. Unfortunately, because it skews the picture, this has become a save-the-elephants thing, but it's not going to do any good to save the elephants and not save the zoo.

"I don't want to mislead the public into thinking that by coming forward with enough money to feed the animals for another year that we'd be doing anything anymore than postponing the issue, and we'd be having the same conversation in another year."

The Baltimore Zoo, the third oldest in the country, suffers from a short-term and a long-term funding problem, Grieb said.

It costs the zoo more than $230,000 to keep the two elephants, 27-year-old Dolly and 28-year-old Anna, for a year, she said yesterday.

Zoo officials have said they would need an extra $1.2 million to $1.5 million annually to keep all of the animals, make repairs, meet cash flow and avoid shrinking the operation.

Grieb said she was happy to receive the $10,000 in donations, but not surprised.

"We've known forever that everyone loves the zoo," she said. "Unfortunately, the amount of funding that's needed is unlikely to be funded privately."

The phones started ringing at Baltimore radio station 98 Rock immediately after a 6 a.m. news report that described the zoo's woes, said Stephanie Drummond, morning show producer.

"When we suggested that people could donate a few bucks, they started calling even more," she said.

The hosts of the Kirk, Mark & Lopez Show calculated that if 7,000 listeners donated $100 each to the zoo, the money could make up for $700,000 in state cuts over the past two years.

Before long, zoo officials heard about the radio stations campaign and offered to be part of the show at 8 a.m. today, bringing along a noisy, exotic bird.

The zoo also received a call yesterday from a representative of the Animal Planet television channel asking how that cable outlet might be able to help.

Concerned pupils

Pupils in Leila Saks-Bowersox's middle school classes at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation Day School came in talking about the zoo story and asking her what she thought they could do to help.

The longtime teacher devoted nearly two hours to the discussion, turning it into a chance for the pupils to practice writing persuasive letters, to talk about how government works and to brainstorm about how they could help.

She then contacted the zoo to ask how to best channel the students' energy. Zoo officials called her back and plan more discussions, she said.

Among the pupils' ideas were collecting donations, getting other schools involved and selling T-shirts with a save-the-zoo logo.

"My kids are just so upset," Saks-Bowersox said. "Some of the kids say they go there with their families every year. They get excited about a lot of things, but this one they're really passionate about. This school stresses doing things for other people."

Robert C. Embry Jr., president of the Abell Foundation, a Baltimore philanthropic organization, said that if the zoo applies for financial help, the foundation's board would consider the request.

"I can't speak for our board," he said. "They're more poverty-oriented, but they are city-oriented. So, it's conceivable. But it's not the type of thing that we usually do."

Board members help

The zoo's 45 board members - some of whom are honorary members - have contributed $50,000 to the zoo, Grieb said.

"A lot of our board members have reached deep into their pockets this year," she said.

The loss of the two female elephants would be the most visible sign of the zoo's struggle to stay afloat after a $700,000 reduction in state aid, compounded by a sagging economy and a year of terrible weather.

The changes announced by the zoo this week are expected to save more than $1 million.

The planned reduction in the zoo's animal collection entails sending some cranes, flamingos, and a number of ducks, reptiles and amphibians to other zoos. The animals that are being chosen do not fit into the zoo's new focus on wilderness and environmental hot spots.

It is hoped that the elephants could be returned with their offspring in a few years when the zoo is financially stronger.

Elephants and gorillas are typically the most popular attractions at many zoos, according to the American Zoo and Aquarium Association.

11.7% staff reduction

The 20 job cuts announced yesterday amount to a staff reduction of 11.7 percent that will bring employment down to about 150 people.

Job losses for the year are expected to total about 35, including positions that were not filled when they became vacant and those of staff members who were fired for poor performance and not replaced, Grieb said.

Another cost-cutting move will eliminate the popular summer camp program that has been offered by the zoo for years. That program cost $332,000 to operate and brought in $205,000 in revenue last year, producing a budget shortfall of nearly $130,000, zoo officials said.

Within weeks, the zoo will open a $7 million Polar Bear Watch exhibit, which will include a tundra buggy from which visitors will be able to view the bears. Some of the zoo's money is solely earmarked for capital projects and cannot be used to help with the operating budget.

Founded in 1867, the Baltimore Zoo is internationally known for its contributions to conservation and research.

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