The Little Rock Zoo

.The Little Rock Zoo needs to step up and care for the animals better! Please read the several artciles here with deaths, sickness and a bald chimp!

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Henry Vilas Park Zoological Society, Helps Zoo.

Holly Kurrian, 2, tries to pet Cyber, a tiger, through the

glass at the Henry Vilas Zoo on Sept. 20, 2009, in Madison.

Photo by: Kris Ugarriza

"Cyber" the tiger walks the line along the window that looks into his habitat at the Henry Vilas Zoo. Children stare as the striped fur on his side flattens against the glass. He is that close. All 450 pounds. One woman presses her hand to the window; as the tiger passes, she smiles and shivers at the same time.

That's the experience zoo director Jim Hubing says he wants visitors to have: an up-close encounter with the animals, whose powerful presence he hopes will inspire a passion for learning about them and conserving their habitats in the wild.

The animals attract more than a half-million annual visits (on a pace to hit a record 700,000 this year), but more people through the zoo gate doesn't mean more revenue. Free admission forever was a condition of the donation of the land more than a century ago that became Vilas Park, the zoo's home. That means the zoo misses out on admission fees that top $12 for an adult at some zoos.

And the recession that has sent people flocking to the free zoo on Madison's leafy near-west side this year has also strapped Dane County, the zoo's primary source of funding, so tightly that it simply cannot pony up like it has in the past.

Riding to the rescue to keep open the zoo as Madison knows it is the Henry Vilas Park Zoological Society.

The nonprofit corporation announced Monday that it is more than doubling its contribution for zoo operating expenses in 2010 - to $558,000 - as a study of even more changes in funding and governance of the zoo continues. The society will also infuse zoo coffers with $113,000 to cover operating costs for the rest of this year.

If not for that extra money, "we would be having some painful discussions about the zoo," says Topf Wells, chief of staff for Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk. "The only way to reduce costs at the zoo is to look at relocating some of the animals. And if we downsize the zoo, it will not be the zoo it should be."

The larger commitment also comes as the zoological society has seen a dip in its ability to attract donations. But Mary Romolino, president of the society's board of directors, says she's confident the organization has the capacity to maintain the increased level of support with new leadership and new ideas about how to raise money.

It was a difficult decision, but the board eventually supported it unanimously, she says. "We wanted to make sure we were doing what we could to have a great free zoo open seven days a week. It's such a jewel for our community."

It was to the Madison Park and Pleasure Drive Association that William F. and Anna M. Vilas donated the land in 1904 that would become a park named for their son, Henry, who died young from complications of diabetes. The zoo was created seven years later with four white-tailed deer as the first resident animals. In 1983, the 28-acre zoo was separated from the park and ownership and operation of the zoo was assumed by Dane County.

The zoo has had its rough patches in the past decade. First, The Capital Times revealed in 1997 that rhesus monkeys and stump-tailed macaques owned by the UW's Wisconsin National Primate Research Center and housed at the zoo were undergoing invasive research in violation of a contract with the zoo. There was no indication that zoo officials were aware of the violations, but the animals were removed.

Then in 2000, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the industry's national credentialing agency, determined that a pair of elephants were being housed in substandard conditions. The elephants, too, were relocated. During the controversy, the zoo director retired and Hubing, a former director of the county Department of Administration, was tapped to take the reins.

Wells recalls that the controversy over the elephants' welfare generated much passionate communication with his office - more than any issue in his 13 years with the county executive. He expects he would hear again from the public if county authorities decided they had to relocate animals they could no longer afford to keep.

People visiting the zoo on a recent Sunday morning certainly seemed impressed by what it has to offer. Kayla Patrick of Madison, watching the giraffes with her husband and their 21-month-old son, says the zoo is a great place to let a toddler explore. The Henry Vilas Zoo doesn't offer the variety of some larger zoos, but because it is free, the family doesn't feel obligated to stay for hours. "We can stay for 20 minutes and come back tomorrow," she says.

Don Rosso of Chicago, thrilled like his family by Cyber the tiger's walk-by, says he makes it a point to spend time at Vilas Zoo when he visits Madison several times a year. "They do a fantastic job" with the limited space and collection, he says.

Pat and John Klettke of Watertown, strolling with their baby grandson and his parents, say they are impressed by the evolution of the exhibits since they last came many years ago. For them, though, the thrill was less about watching the animals than seeing the delight on the face of their grandson. "It's always about the little ones, isn't it," says Pat.

Not always. David McIntyre of Madison says he and his wife often visit the zoo, just the two of them. "It's clean, it's outdoors, it's a good place to walk."

But keeping the zoo attractive and the animals healthy is expensive, and the numbers are dismal as Dane County gears up for debate on the 2010 budget. Revenues are falling so much more steeply than projected that the tax levy boost to cover business as usual for the county would soar past state-imposed limits. County workers took a pay cut this spring, and departments have been trimming their staffs for the past several years. Meanwhile, the high unemployment that sent sales tax and other revenues plummeting is also pushing up demand for services funded by the county's massive human services budget. Every county department is subject to cuts that Hubing says the zoo just could not bear.

Wells had been meeting with representatives of the zoological society long before calculations for the 2010 budget began, but he says the bad numbers just underscore the need for a new source of revenue. "With the zoo, a lot of the costs are personnel you need to properly care for the animals or costs for food and vet care." New exhibits that better showcase animals and house them more comfortably are also more expensive to run. The zoological society's increased subsidy "is exceptional and a very welcome degree of support," Wells says.

The additional funds will allow the zoo to add three people to its staff of 17 - two animal keepers to join the current dozen, and a second maintenance person, says Hubing. The additional help is vital to take care of more than 600 animals in 20 buildings on 30 acres, he says.

To pay for all that, the zoo is seeking $2.25 million in operating funds from the county in 2010, while the city of Madison will contribute $420,000 as part of a longstanding cost-sharing agreement. Society funds to subsidize zoo operations come only from concessions - food, gifts, plus carousel and train rides that netted $838,754 last year - as well as on-site donations. The society, with its own $1.35 million budget, also provides education programs and marketing services to the zoo and oversees volunteers there.

While the zoo boasts many new plantings, including fruit-bearing trees that help feed the animals, the facilities look tired in spots. The carpeting is worn and stained in the primate building, for example, and a collection of small signs calling for quiet at the chimpanzee exhibit is so confusing that they are unlikely to affect anyone's behavior. It's hard to raise money to fix things like that, however, so in return for the zoological society's increased donation, the county and city will assume the costs of smaller maintenance capital projects, Hubing says.

Anne Ross, chair of the county's advisory Zoo Commission, says the society's stepped-up support is a significant move. "I think the society went through some real soul-searching on how expansive they wanted their role to be," she says.

The commission was named by Falk's office to study zoo funding and governance. Its report, due soon, will call for more integration of the zoo's public and private sponsors. "When the budget is put together, the partnership will have to work more closely," Ross says.

The commission looked at a variety of options and privatization was "on the list," Ross says. "It did not rise to the top - not now. But this should be an ongoing conversation. We need to be open-minded in our strategies now and in the future."

Zoos across the country are seeing donations fall with the economy and government support eroding, reports Stephen Feldman, spokesman for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. Some cities are turning to privatization. Dallas has just made the change, while it remains a recurring controversy in Detroit and Boston.

In Milwaukee, County Executive Scott Walker is calling for privatization of the Milwaukee County Zoo in his 2010 budget, with operations being taken on by its zoological society. The issue is sure to stir controversy, especially regarding the future of zoo workers now on the county payroll. Walker wants to freeze his county's funding for the Milwaukee Zoo, which also has the benefit of charging admission fees, at the current $5.9 million.

Having admission fees off the table makes the challenge that much greater for the Henry Vilas Park Zoological Society, and it has struggled in the recent past with raising money.

Contributions have fallen more than 50 percent in the past few years, from $1.96 million in the 2006-2007 fiscal year to $973,138 in the year ended March 31, 2009, according to the organization's audited financial statement.

The zoo had hoped to complete construction of a new Arctic Passage habitat for polar bears and seals by 2007, part of a $27 million, 10-year zoo reconstruction program. A Children's Zoo and North American Prairie exhibit have been completed, but so far the capital campaign for Arctic Passage, begun in 2004, has raised only $7 million toward the $9.4 million original price tag. Exhibit space cleared for the new construction sits vacant and weedy.

On the society's administrative side, the abrupt departure of its executive director in 2007 was followed by a short-term replacement, an interim stint by a board member, and finally, the hiring in June of Boris Frank, a well-known local consultant to nonprofits.

Romolino, the society's board president, says her group is ready to turn things around. "Our first step was to hire Boris to reinvigorate fundraising activity."

Some changes have happened already. The poorly performing - and expensive - fundraiser called "Feast with the Beasts" was dropped this year. In contrast, the Zoo Run Run, led this year by Olympian Suzy Favor Hamilton on Sept. 20, drew 1,346 runners compared to 800 last year and is expected to net up to $30,000.

Despite the tough climate for charitable giving and zoo balance sheets in particular, there's an argument to be made that the Henry Vilas Zoo could buck that trend by banking on the goodwill it has built by being free and well-used all these years.

Jerry Hoppe of Verona is new to running this year, but he decided to participate in this month's Zoo Run Run, for example, even though he hadn't been to the zoo since his kids were small. "You want to know something worthwhile is going to benefit," he says. "People take the zoo for granted," adds his wife, Patty.

While the restriction on admission fees does make funding the zoo more difficult, Wells from the county executive's office says its value to the community as free family recreation is underestimated. "It's one of the few places working families without a lot of money can take the kids for a day of fun and learning. In this recession, that means a lot."

Frank is full of ideas on how better to capitalize on that positive perception: more visible and better placed donation tubes on the zoo grounds, better marketing to boost memberships, even changing the zoological society's working name to the more accessible Friends of the Zoo.

"We're taking a deep, deep look at all our efforts," Romolino says. The society will seek a new price estimate for Arctic Passage in the hope that costs have dropped in the economic downturn, and work to complete the fundraising and start construction next year, she says.

Ross says the message she is taking from her study of the zoo is that the community needs to support it better. "We need to be prepared to step up and spend money on concessions, make contributions when we are there," she says.

Like other zoo officials, Hubing says the zoo's free admission policy has its benefits. "Being free is a terrific attribute," he says. The zoo's mission is to be open to all, "and what better way to be open than to let people come and go as they please."

The mission reaches beyond recreation to education about conservation, says Hubing, who in an interview produces both records of the zoo's effective efforts to reduce energy consumption and its participation in the complex national breeding program to preserve species endangered in the wild.

As with most visitors to the zoo, the animals inspire in Hubing a love for animal information and lore about the Henry Vilas Zoo's particular residents. The chimpanzees and orangutans have completely different personalities, he shares. And Cyber the Amur tiger? Ah, Cyber plays to the crowd, he insists.

Source and more photographs

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