by Max Brantley
The national organization that accredits zoos has tabled reaccreditation of the Little Rock Zoo because of continuing questions about zoo finances.
What a happy coincidence for the Zoo that this news came the day before final voting on a half-billion-dollar sales tax increase that includes some money for the zoo.
Susan Altrui of the Zoo notes that accreditation hearings are always before the start of the annual Association of Zoos and Aquariums annual conference which is the second week in September.
UPDATE: A somewhat cynical veteran of city budget shenanigans (no, not Jim Lynch) suggests the National Lampoon cover above to accompany this story. His contention is that accrediting agencies are generally a means for members of a club to shame overseers of other club members into spending money on a mutually desired objective. I'm just saying.
The Association of Zoos and Aquariums Accreditation Commission made a decision this morning to table the accreditation of the Little Rock Zoo for one year after listing major concerns over the Zoo's funding.
In the hearing conducted this morning at the Association of Zoos and Aquariums annual conference in Atlanta, members of the commission listed major concerns about recent reductions in staff and lack of funding for deferred maintenance for exhibits and facilities as reasons for tabling the Zoo.
Although revenues for the Zoo from gate admission, concessions, special events, and private donations are up, support from the City of Little Rock has declined as revenues for the city have declined since the Zoo was last accredited in 2006. The Zoo has a total of 13 positions currently not filled.
The commission stated in the hearing that staff reductions have caused too many staff to wear too many hats. For instance, the Zoo's Education Curator and the Education Assistant positions are vacant and the Zoo's General Curator has assumed responsibilities for both departments.
All full-time administrative positions and education positions are currently vacant, all but one marketing and fundraising position and guest services position are vacant, and vacancies also exist in the Zoo's facilities operations department and animal department.
The accreditation commission also listed as a concern the Zoo's lack of funding for deferred maintenance of existing facilities. Without regular maintenance, many exhibits and facilities will begin to decline leading to expensive replacements in the future.
A final decision on the Zoo's accreditation will be made in less than a year after the commission reviews the city's ability to fund staffing and deferred maintenance issues.
On a positive note, the commission noted the excellence of the Zoo's elephant program and efforts in animal conservation.
The commission hearing was attended by Zoo Director Mike Blakely, General Curator Mark Shaw, Zoo Board of Governors Chairman Tad Bohannon, and Susan Altrui, Zoo Director of Marketing and Development.