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Detroit News
Zoo faces money crunch, seeks long-term solutions

Sunday, April 17, 2005

Brandy Baker / The Detroit News

Michael McGillis and his daughter, Maia, study a butterfly up close at the Detroit Zoo. To offset a proposed $4 million cut in funding from Detroit, zoo officials have trimmed at least 19 jobs and plan to raise the $10.50 admission fee by 50 cents.

Zoo faces money crunch, seeks long-term solutions

It could lose $4 million from city of Detroit; Oakland County may study takeover.

Brandy Baker / The Detroit News

A peacock roams the zoo, which has lost one of its top attractions -- two elephants.

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    Brandy Baker / The Detroit News

    About a million people visit the Detroit Zoo in Royal Oak every year. Oakland County may consider taking it over.

    ROYAL OAK -- Tom and Marilyn Zamp of Grosse Pointe Farms packed up their four kids Thursday for a trip to the Detroit Zoo.

    They spent $37 on tickets, about $1.50 for parking and packed a picnic lunch -- a full day of fun for a family of six for less than 40 bucks.

    News that the zoo may lose $4 million from Detroit followed closely last week the departure of Wanda and Winky, the zoo's beloved pachyderms and two of its top animal attractions for more than a decade.

    The upheaval has zoo officials, community leaders and zoo lovers such as the Zamps questioning what the future will look like for the 76-year-old zoo that attracts about a million visitors a year.

    The range of options even includes a suggestion by Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson that the zoo would make a good addition to the county parks system.

    Whatever the outcome, Tom Zamp believes the zoo has to consider the families who flock there.

    "We probably come five times a year," he said, as his family watched giraffes munch leaves from the top of a tree.

    "It's a nice thing to do -- you get to see the animals and get exercise," said Joe Zamp, 11, a fifth-grader at Kerby Elementary. "I love animals."

    Zoo officials have already trimmed at least 19 jobs and will raise the $10.50 admission by 50 cents in July or sooner.

    The measures will offset about $1.5 million of the $4 million that would be cut under Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick's budget proposal for the fiscal year that starts July, 1, according to zoo Director Ron Kagen.

    Kilpatrick hopes to help close Detroit's $230 million budget deficit by letting local governments and private donors support cultural attractions that serve the entire region.

    Detroit recently decided to close the 101-year-old aquarium on Belle Isle to save more than $530,000 annually.

    That has Chrissy Ferella of Livonia worried that the zoo could close, too.

    "(Kilpatrick) is taking away all kinds of things, like the aquarium," Ferella said. "I think it's wrong.

    "This is a great day (at the zoo) not only for adults but for children. It's important for families to come to the zoo."

    The zoo already enjoys healthy support from corporate and private donors, Kagen said. More than $38 million in contributions were raised to support new exhibits and facilities, including the Arctic Ring of Life, the 2-acre National Amphibian Conservation Center, an animal health complex and a soon-to-open education center.

    The zoo is doing a good job marketing itself, Kagen added. Admissions are up 15 percent this year. Wanda and Winky, the zoo elephants that have retired to an animal sanctuary in California, will be replaced this summer with two rhinoceroses. And 5-month-old Talini, the first polar bear cub born at the zoo in 15 years, debuted last week.

    What the zoo needs most is a regional funding solution, Kagen said. And he's confident that local communities will work with the zoo to find one.

    "Short-term, we're doing cuts in expenses, but it will not close the gap, and it's not a long-term strategy," Kagen said. "Detroit has subsidized the zoo for 75 years, and that's why it's one of the best in the country. (But) it makes sense to have the entire region serve the cultural attractions, because they serve the entire region."

    Oakland County parks officials will likely hire an accounting firm to scrutinize the zoo's budget, while keeping in mind the possibility of adding the zoo to the county's park system, said Patterson.

    "It's a fine zoo with national prestige, and it is in Oakland County," he said. "It could be a fine addition to our parks system, but we'll be looking for a break-even deal for it. We're not going to subsidize it."

    Patterson said the zoo, which has an $11 million budget, operates at a loss of about $4 million annually.

    He said a representative from Kilpatrick's office approached him about two weeks ago about a possible sale. He declined to name the representative.

    An analysis of the zoo's books would take months to complete, Patterson said. It is unclear how much the zoo would sell for.


    You can reach Karen Bouffard at (734) 462-2206 or kbouffard@detnews.com. Detroit News Staff Writer Amy Lee contributed to this report.