Those valentines from Anna and Dolly - the Baltimore Zoo's beloved elephants - must have done the trick, because the zoo is expected to announce today that it has met the $1 million fund-raising goal necessary to obtain a matching grant.
The final tally of donations came in at $1,031,553, a zoo official said yesterday. That total includes contributions that arrived in the mail as late as Feb. 20, but were designated for the fund-raising campaign that featured valentine solicitations from the elephants for the fund-raiser with the Feb. 14 cut-off.
"The mood is reserved joy," Ben Gross, a spokesman for the zoo, said yesterday. "We're flabbergasted that the citizens of Maryland came through the way they did for us. But we still need to keep our fingers crossed that the budget passes as is." A proposed state budget for the coming fiscal year would add $750,000 in operating support over last year's budget - more than replacing the recent $700,000 cut. The state also provides an additional $2.8 million a year in aid to the zoo, which was founded in 1867.
The success of the fund-raising effort is a huge achievement, but the fate of the elephants will be more secure once the state budget is approved with the proposed provisions for the zoo in place, Gross said.
"This is an excellent first step in being able to say we'll be able to keep them," he said. "The second piece is the passing of the budget as proposed by Governor Ehrlich as it relates to the zoo."
In addition to the state cuts, several factors in recent years have contributed to the zoo's financial and labor pressures, zoo officials have said. The September 2001 terrorist attacks, the October 2002 sniper attacks, a harsh winter and wet summer all have slowed the stream of visitors. This winter, the zoo has had to close for several days because of ice that made walking the grounds treacherous.
A public-private rescue package for the zoo was put together at a meeting in November in Baltimore attended by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., Comptroller William Donald Schaefer and about two dozen high-powered local business leaders.
The fund-raising effort began after the zoo announced in November that it was laying off 20 workers, reducing its collection by 400 animals and shipping Dolly and Anna to another zoo on a "breeding loan."
News of the layoffs and other problems at the zoo came just a month after the zoo opened its $7 million Polar Bear Watch exhibit, which includes a tundra buggy from which visitors can view the bears. Some of the zoo's money is earmarked solely for capital projects and cannot be used to help with operating costs.
"It brings true what we've been saying all along," Gross said yesterday. "It alleviates that short-term cash crunch and gives us the time to focus on the long-term issues to get us back on the path to financial health."