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Hippo Home Renovations Stall as Cities Scrimp for Zoo Funds

  • One generation’s beloved attractions are modern-day money pits
  • In Honolulu, Rosey died before her new pond was finished

Rosey and Louise, the hippos at Honolulu Zoo, were supposed to spend the rest of their days loafing in filtered pond water. Then Rosey died unexpectedly, halting a $1.8 million, taxpayer-funded project to upgrade their habitat.

Now the city that owns the zoo is spending more public money, on new hires, maintenance and an exhibit for reptiles and amphibians. Without the improvements, the zoo risks losing its breeding programs and animals on loan, potentially disastrous for a business built on customer demand for rare creatures and the newborns that become media sensations.

For Honolulu’s mainland counterparts, the challenge is becoming all too familiar.

While great American cities a century ago considered captive animal displays a cultural hallmark, those civic leaders didn’t count on the modern-day menageries’ strains on the tax base. Today, some of the nation’s oldest and most successful zoos operate as public-private partnerships, generating billions of dollars in economic activity and leading international species-conservation efforts. Others, more reliant on taxpayer support, are competing for public dollars in cities struggling to pave roads and improve schools.

“I’ve got to sit here and make a decision about whether we have to keep our zoo afloat or comply with an EPA consent decree to repair our crumbling sewer system,” Jackson, Mississippi, Councilman Melvin Priester Jr., referring to a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency order, said in a telephone interview.

Animal Welfare

Of an estimated 10,000 zoos worldwide, about 230 are accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, a Maryland-based non-profit group with standards on animal care, conservation and finances. The 216 U.S. members contributed $17.4 billion to the economy in 2014, according to an association study.

In a 2014 survey of about 150 members, 38 percent were government-owned or operated. Seventy-two percent received some taxpayer or public support, for an average one-third of their operating budget. Come renewal time, cash flow is scrutinized.

“When we do have to remove accreditation, it is typically because of financial concerns,” Rob Vernon, an association spokesman, said in an interview.

Tax Proposal

That was the case in March in Honolulu, where officials said prior administrations’ uneven funding had taken a toll on staffing and facilities.

“We got a huge wake-up call,” said Guy Kaulukukui, director of Honolulu city and county’s Enterprise Department, which runs the zoo. Local government has added about $800,000 to the budget, in addition to its roughly $6 million annual allotment, to help regain accreditation. Also on the table is a special multi-year property-tax proposal that Kaulukukui said could remove politics from budgeting decisions.

Such a setup would be a tough sell in Jackson, where 30 percent of the Mississippi capital’s population lives in poverty. Rebuilding the city’s antiquated sewer system will cost $700 million, according to Priester, the council’s finance chairman. It was hard enough coming up with $5 million in donations, grants and loans to renovate the municipal theater in 2014.

“We tried to put a $5 surcharge on concerts and people nearly rioted,” Priester said.

Traveling Elephants

In 2010, the Jackson Zoo sent its two African elephants, on display for more than two decades, to Nashville because it lacked as much as $10 million to comply with accreditation requirements. From 2007 to last year, attendance dropped by 43 percent.

“A lot of these exhibits are older and need to be replaced,” said zoo director Beth Poff. The staff is considering adding lions, a costly step but one that could increase attendance 20 percent. “We have to put a new face on the zoo.”

While that zoo relies on a line item from the city council, others tap into a voter-approved tax stream linked to property values. That set-up comes with its own challenges.

Revenue Decline

From 2008 to 2015, dedicated tax revenue for Detroit’s zoo dropped 30 percent as property values declined amid the biggest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history.

“We anticipated the decline and budgeted accordingly,” Patricia Mills Janeway, a spokeswoman for the Detroit Zoological Society, said in an e-mail. The revenue projection is flat for the next five years, she said.

In Ohio, Americans for Prosperity, the anti-tax group backed by the billionaire Koch brothers, helped to defeat a permanent levy for the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium in 2014. A year later, voters agreed to a 10-year revenue stream at a lower rate.

Cincinnati’s zoo projects that by 2018, 20 percent of its operating budget will come from property taxes, down from 41 percent in 1993. Still, costs have outpaced inflation. The zoo’s financial health is crucial to the region, as it contributes $143 million annually to the local economy, according to a 2012 study by the University of Cincinnati Economics Center.

“We need more support, not less,” said zoo director Thane Maynard. “Our goal is to get permission to ask for an inflationary increase. The price of everything, from meat for the lions to water for the botanical garden -- all that goes up.”

Killer Whales

At the same time, social attitudes are changing about captive animals in general. Today at the Gaza Strip’s Khan Younis, called the "world’s worst zoo" by activists, rescuers prepared the last 15 surviving animals, in danger of starving to death, for transfer to other facilities. 

In 2016, after years of activist protests, SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment Inc. discontinued breeding killer whales as aquarium performers, and Ringling Bros. & Barnum and Bailey circus ended its 145-year-old elephant act.

Most small zoos can’t afford to retire animals that draw paying crowds or donor pledges.

Raccoon Cages

In August 2015, a free community-oriented zoo operated by the water and electricity utility in Clay Center, Kansas, agreed to pay $7,500 for violating the federal Animal Welfare Act. U.S. Agriculture Department agents documented inadequate veterinary care for foxes, rabbits and other animals; the zoo open to visitors without personnel on site; and unsecured bear, wolf and raccoon enclosures.

The zoo costs $400,000 a year to operate, with funding from water revenue. The operators are closing in on a $500,000 fundraising goal, with plans to rebuild exhibits and shift animals around the site during construction, said Bill Callaway, the utility superintendent.

Even that comes with risk, as Honolulu learned when Rosey the hippo died during the water-filtering project. A post-mortem exam didn’t determine the cause of death, but noted that amid the construction noise, stress could have been a factor, according to a copy of the report obtained by Carroll Cox, founder of EnviroWatch, a Hawaii-based non-profit group that monitors environmental issues and local government.

“I would rather privatize the zoo,” Cox said by telephone. “Since 2009 we’ve had five zoo directors, and now we’re going for accreditation, hiring more staff and bringing on more costs. It’s throwing good money after bad.”

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