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Send in the elephants

Does Little Rock have the nerve?



The Little Rock Zoo seems to be at another turning point, large questions being raised by public officials and animal lovers about what sort of zoo there should be, and even, in some quarters, whether there should be much of a zoo at all. (Zoo detractors like state Sen. Bob Johnson don't put the question quite so starkly, but that's what's at stake when they speak of moving the zoo to some unspecified but necessarily less accessible location, at some unspecified but necessarily huge cost, to be paid from some unspecified source. They appear less interested in the zoo than in the valuable Central Little Rock land the zoo sits on.) Zoo supporters may take comfort in knowing that the zoo has reached turning points before, and, so far, has negotiated the turns more or less successfully.

The zoo was founded in 1926, with two animals — an abandoned timber wolf and a circus-trained bear. It didn't become a zoo worthy of the name until the 1930s, when a number of buildings were erected as public works projects during the Depression. Coincidentally, a new baseball stadium that would come to be called Ray Winder Field was built about the same time. Those Works Progress Administration (WPA) buildings, made from native Arkansas stone, are still around, though generally used for other than their original purposes. The zoo's full-service restaurant, a comparatively recent addition, is in one of them.

The zoo has always operated in a hand-to-mouth fashion, forced to rely on private contributors for much of its upkeep. City officials have higher priorities, such as public safety, and the state has helped hardly any at all, though the Little Rock Zoo is the only zoo in Arkansas and draws visitors from across the state, including busloads of schoolchildren.

A decade ago, the hand didn't quite make it to the mouth, and the zoo lost its accreditation by the American Zoo Association, a serious setback. Improvements were made, and changes in the way the zoo was run, lessening the influence of private fund-raisers on zoo policy and establishing the zoo as a separate department of city government, with the zoo director, now Mike Blakely, reporting directly to the city manager. Accreditation was regained.

“This is not the zoo of 10 or 15 years ago, when we lost our accreditation,” says Susan Altrui, director of development and marketing. “I think Senator Johnson has that misconception. This is a different zoo, with different leadership and different animals.” The 33-acre zoo draws 300,000 visitors a year, more than anyplace in Central Arkansas except the Clinton Library, Altrui said, and with increased financial support, it could become a world-class zoo and double the number of visitors. She points to the Memphis Zoo, Little Rock's closest competitor, as an example. “Ten or 15 years ago, the Memphis Zoo was where we are now, good but not great. In 10 years, they went from 300,000 visitors to over a million.” That progress was made, she acknowledges, with the help of big contributions from big corporations like Federal Express. Little Rock doesn't have so imposing a group of corporate donors. (Counting a recent expansion, the Memphis Zoo covers about 55 acres. The Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, one of the nation's best, is about the same size as the Little Rock Zoo.)

Zoo officials think that certain improvements would allow Little Rock to make that leap to world-class. The most dramatic of these would be the establishment of an elephant breeding program, something that no other zoo in the area has — not Memphis, not St. Louis, not Tulsa.

The Little Rock Zoo already is in the process of converting from an old-fashioned “classification” zoo to a new-fashioned “zoogeographic” zoo. In a classification zoo, all the big cats, for example, are displayed in one area. In a zoogeographic zoo, different species are placed in an area that mimics their native habitat. The species must be carefully chosen, of course; the lions don't go in with the lambs. The Little Rock Zoo will open an African Veldt area in the spring, exhibiting zebra and kudu and some kind of large bird, either an ostrich or a crane, in a setting that resembles the original.

“Disney has revolutionized the way zoos are done,” Altrui said. “Now the idea is that you feel like you're not really in Little Rock, Arkansas, you're in Africa. It's experiential. You have multi-level viewing of the animals, and natural barriers so that you're not looking at bars and concrete.”

The zoo and a private support group, the Arkansas Zoological Foundation, propose to develop a new Asian Habitat area, and to include in the area a breeding program for Asian elephants. This can't be done without more space. It happens that some unused space, city-owned, is available now, right next door in War Memorial Park. It's the old Ray Winder Field property, vacant since the Arkansas Travelers baseball team moved to a new stadium in North Little Rock. But the zoo is not alone in coveting this property. The nearby University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences wants to buy the land for additional parking. Baseball buffs want to preserve the old stadium and use it for amateur baseball programs. The Little Rock Board of Directors will make the call.

The Little Rock Zoo now has two elderly female elephants. Altrui said the American Zoo Association recommends that if a zoo has elephants at all, it have an elephant breeding program.

The AZA is concerned about survival of species. “In 10 or 20 years, some species won't exist anywhere but zoos,” Altrui said. Already, there are far more tigers in captivity than in the wild. And elephants have very risky births. “You need several acres to do elephant breeding right,” Altrui said. A big reason is that you also need a male elephant. Adult female elephants are generally docile creatures. An adult male is a handful, if not more.

“Our zoo couldn't hold a male elephant now,” Altrui said. “A male in musth can go into a testosterone rage. He's dangerous to other elephants and to zookeepers. You have to give him a lot of room. You have to have special barriers protecting keepers and veterinarians.”

(The zoo is not far from the state Capitol. Legislative opponents of the zoo's expansion plans perhaps fear that a bull elephant would escape and trample a meeting of the Joint Budget Committee. This is unlikely to happen, authorities say, and in any case, legislators are not an endangered species.)

To realize the Ray Winder project would require about five years and $10 million to $20 million in public and private money, Altrui said. She notes that the zoo and the AZF are accustomed to raising the money the zoo needs. Of a $4.7 million annual zoo budget, only about $1.7 million comes from the city. The other $3 million is made up of admission charges, concession sales, rental fees for private parties, memberships and private donations. Contrary to legislative assertions of repeated aid, the zoo in its 83-year-history has received $94,000 of state money, that from a 2007 appropriation. (The zoo charges $9 for adult admission and $7 for children and seniors in the winter. From April 1 through Labor Day, the charges are $10 and $8.)

If the cost of the elephant breeding program seems high, it's puny compared to that of relocating the whole zoo, which some have suggested. That cost is estimated at $200 to $300 million, far more than feasible. If a zoo relocation ever actually occurred, the surviving zoo would be something on the order of the one-bear, one-wolf model of 1926. And the new site would be far less accessible than the existing zoo, which has an Interstate highway on one side and a major east-west city artery on the other.

Mayor Mark Stodola says that moving the zoo is not an option for city government, but he isn't swept away by the zoo's expansion plans either. Of the proposed elephant breeding program, he said, “I'm not sure that's the direction we need to go.” At one point during a telephone interview, he said he'd rather have a panda than an elephant breeding program, but he called back later and said his real point was that any decision about a major addition to the zoo would ultimately have to be made by the city Board of Directors (of which Stodola is a member), and not left to zoo personnel. Altrui said that a panda exhibit would cost even more than an elephant breeding program. Payment must be made to the Chinese government for pandas, and the facilities for showing them must meet rigid specifications, she said. Besides, a panda wouldn't be unique in this region. Memphis already has one.

Stodola is more enthusiastic about his own suggestion of extending the zoo's reach south, across Interstate 630. This would entail the construction of pedestrian bridges across the interstate. Done in cooperation with the Central Arkansas Library System, which plans a new children's library in the neighborhood, such a project could create an attractive entrance to War Memorial Park, would be less expensive than the zoo's plan, and could be “a real lifeline for the diverse neighborhoods” south of 630, Stodola said. It's unclear what new zoo programs, if any, this alternative would allow for.

Noting the city's needs in other areas, and its limited resources, Stodola said there are “compelling reasons” for the state to take over the zoo. Those reasons are unlikely to compel legislators, who've been reluctant heretofore to provide even minor assistance to the zoo.

At the end of its written proposal to expand the zoo into the Ray Winder property, the Zoological Foundation says, “The Little Rock Zoo is at a crossroads and the leadership of this great city must decide whether or not they want to invest in a world-class zoo that drives tourism and economic development to the Little Rock area and enhances the quality of life for all Arkansans. … [T]he city of Little Rock should not be shortsighted in their planning of the War Memorial Park area by selling this [Ray Winder] property for a one-time monetary gain.”

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