The financial picture for zoos isn't a good one. Would that the WPA was still around...
- American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (or, The Stimulus Bill)
When the oldest zoo in America was planning its 150th anniversary, it probably never thought Congress would compare it to a casino just weeks before the celebration. Such was the case for the Philadelphia Zoo, which marked its sesquicentennial this past weekend. The issue isn't access to the stimulus funds (though that couldn't hurt), but more the implication that, like swimming, golfing, and gambling, zoogoing is nice but not necessary.
So maybe it's appropriate that the zoo's party was thematically more about looking to its past than to its future. Chartered in 1859 (but, because of delays due to the Civil War, not opened until 1874), the institution celebrated its birthday with actors dressed in Victorian costumes, brass bands, and a guy riding the grounds on a penny-farthing bike — the kind with the giant wheel in the front.
Enjoying such a pleasant, early-spring afternoon at the zoo, one would likely be unaware of the precarious state in which the country's zoo find themselves today. Last week, the New York Times reported that many zoos — including those in New York, Chicago, St. Louis, and Baltimore — are cutting staff, programs, and operating hours, and in some cases are even relocating animals, in efforts to lower costs as both endowments and government support fall in the wake of the current economic crisis. The Governor of New York has announced plans to cut all state funding for zoos, aquariums, and botanical gardens in the 2010 fiscal budget. The Wildlife Conservation Society — which runs the Bronx, Central Park, Queens, and Prospect Park zoos, along with the New York Aquarium — responded by reaching out to the public through a series of videos in which a porcupine is first "fired" by the director of the Bronx Zoo, and then looks for work (unsuccessfully) at an unemployment office. The Philadelphia Zoo is a private non-profit, but its home city has said it will no longer waive the institution's water bill, most recently pegged at $2.8 million.
Given the reach of the current recession, it's perhaps to be expected that zoos and aquariums will see cuts in public financial support. What is surprising, however, is the depth of those cuts and, more important, the extent to which support of such institutions has come to be seen as frivolous.
This was perhaps most acute in the recent debate over how, exactly, we should spend hundreds of billions of dollars in federal stimulus funds. One proposal included $4.8 million for renovations to the polar bear exhibit at the Roger Williams Park Zoo in Providence, Rhode Island. When word of the proposal got out, the guano hit the fan. Critics of the bailout quickly adopted the polar bear exhibit as the symbol of wasteful spending and zoos, casinos, and pools were subsequently (and explicitly) cut out of the stimulus bill.
But zoos have had to fight even before the current downtown became obvious in the fall. Last spring, in debates over a $1 billion bond that included funding for a gorilla exhibit at St. Paul's Como Park Zoo, Minnesota State's House Minority Leader Marty Seifert told members of that body, "You can pick the school kids of Minnesota or you can pick the gorillas." As reported by Minnesota Public Radio, Seifert continued:
What kind of house could you build for $500 thousand? A pretty darn nice one. Hot tubs, bedrooms, brass, granite, garages. The whole nine yards. Now I want you think what we're doing for the gorillas for a moment. Eleven million taxpayer hard-earned dollars.
One guesses that Seifert's beef wasn't over the value of, say, gorilla conservation versus that of free school lunches, but rather the fact that gorillas would have what he assumed were the animal equivalent of hot tubs, brass, and granite, when most of his constituents didn't even have the real things.
Such sentiments reflect a shift in the perceived value of zoos since their development in America in the late 19th century. Inspired by both the animal collections built from royal menageries in Paris and London, as well as by those created by scientific societies throughout Germany, the builders of this country's first zoos envisioned their institutions as loci of nature, recreation, and education — an amalgam very popular at the time. Zoos were deliberately situated between the city, teeming with the detrimental effects of urbanization and industrialization, and the unknown wilderness beyond. Like libraries, museums, and orchestras, they became symbols of civic pride. But set often on the pastoral land of a city's fringe, a visit to the zoo was also a welcome opportunity to get out-of-doors. As both a respected cultural institution and a form of park, zoos offered visitors an unparalleled opportunity to be both enlightened and entertained.
A lot of people wonder how much the current economic downtown resembles that of the Great Depression. One big difference comes in the support of zoos. In the '30s, the institutions received significant support from Roosevelt's Works Projects Administration. Artists created advertisements encouraging the public to visit zoos, and new buildings and exhibits sprung up in zoos across the country. St. Paul's Como Park Zoo, for example, came out of the Depression with a bear grotto, monkey island, barn, and main building, thanks to the WPA. New York's funding remained intact during that time, as well: According to the Wildlife Conservation Society, the state has supported the institution every year since 1895.
What's changed? For starters, the zoos have. In the last half of the 20th century, most added conservation to education and entertainment on their lists of priorities. Long gone are the days when simply seeing a living tiger counted as an enlightening experience in and of itself. Today, that experience comes packaged with placards, interactive games, docents, videos, and any other number of museum conventions that extol the value of not only appreciating the animal before you, but of acting to save its wild counterparts by choosing products that don't contribute to habitat degradation, for example, or buying a membership to support the zoo's breeding programs and field work.
Zoos are happy to put forth this image of a kind of Noah's Ark for the future, and the public accepts it. But the notion — often used to defend zoos from their critics — may also be why state and municipal support is falling. Such local financial support of zoos is discordant with the more global nature of the institutions' loftiest goals. Consider the Philadelphia Zoo. Its conservation efforts include work on the diamondback terrapin of the region's salt marshes, but also on Mexican jaguars, Central American river turtles, African cheetahs, South American river otters, and Asian snow leopards. When you're the mayor of Philadelphia or governor of New York or Minnesota House minority leader, and you're trying to keep libraries open and children insured and state troopers paid, the preservation of, say, South African's Humboldt penguin can seem a little less pressing.
As far as the zoo's other purposes — entertainment and education — well, the first is a no-brainer for financial paring, and the second has already been pruned through the elimination of after-school programs and cuts to state college budgets, among others. In this way, the multiple purposes of zoos — a trifecta once highly valued — have today made the institutions a target on government balance sheets.
And yet, to say that the zoo is a jack-of-all-trades is not to say it's a master of nothing. The experience of visiting a zoo is a very particular one. This seems obvious, but I'm not speaking here of the simple act of seeing an animal that one would only otherwise see in Africa or Asia — though still fascinating, our wonder cannot compete with that of visitors from a time before animal wranglers started showing up on late-night talk shows and zoos started bringing their animals to elementary schools in vans.
On the surface, a day at the zoo can appear fairly routine. At the Philadelphia Zoo on its birthday, kids ran their fingers over an empty tortoise shell that a volunteer held by that animals' exhibit, and laid on the floor of the Bank of America Big Cat Falls' theater to watch a film montage of tigers, lions, and cheetahs. Parents pushed strollers and bought Dippin' Dots. I sat on the edge of Bird Lake and watched children in a paddle boat shaped like a swan try to hit Canada geese while an employee on the dock yelled, "Ride's over!"
But there were also multiple opportunities for contemplation of biology — a fact whose spirit would have pleased the zoo's founders, if not its form. At an exhibit of two hornbills, for example, one of the birds hopped to the fence whenever a visitor came to it. It walked back and forth along the fence with a toy in its long, black beak: a cartoon cat with a stressed-out expression on its face. In the petting zoo, I saw a squirrel (one of the only truly wild animals at a zoo) eat almost an entire ice cream cone that someone had dropped. A few dozen peacocks invaded the dusty mountain of the prairie dog enclosure; three of the mammals sat at the end of clear plastic box placed out on the mound, eating peanuts while one of the birds poked its head in to eat some, too. These two species were not set up through evolution or parental teaching to interact with one another, and yet here they were, sharing nuts. I don't know if this is a good or bad thing, and I know it's not the kind of animal encounter the zoo expects one to have, but I think these are some of the more intriguing entrances into both private and shared conversations about the natural world and our place in it. That, I believe, is a good thing — maybe not enough of one to convince a mayor or a governor or a senator to increase funding for zoos, but one that keeps them relevant nevertheless. • 27 March 2009
Jesse Smith is managing editor of The Smart Set.