March 26, 2008

Accreditation for Maryland Zoo at Risk

The Maryland Zoo in Baltimore could lose its national accreditation unless the aging facility fixes a host of expensive problems stemming from years of financial struggles.

The 132-year-old zoo has until September to correct dozens of shortcomings, most concerning infrastructure such as faulty fire alarms, decrepit buildings and drainage. Low wages for workers are another problem. The cost of the fixes could run as high as the zoo's current $12.5 million budget.

Failure to meet the standards of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums won't close the zoo in Druid Hill Park, but it could result in loss of public support at a time when it is struggling to boost attendance and fundraising. The zoo also could lose animals, among them cheetahs and chimpanzees on loan from accredited zoos that participate in species breeding programs.

Donald P. Hutchinson, the former Baltimore County executive who is president of the zoo, stressed the importance of accreditation yesterday and acknowledged that it's at risk.

"They [the AZA] told me directly that it would difficult for us to hold on to accreditation," he said. "We haven't had a clean evaluation for a couple of reviews. That goes back over the past 10 years. It's a challenge for us."

Last week, the 160-acre facility needed the city to forgive $473,541 in overdue water bills. Last year, it struggled with a $3 million deficit, and Hutchinson said the zoo will need close to $1 million in emergency private financing to make it to July, when state funds for the new fiscal year are released.

"The problems we're talking about here didn't happen overnight," said Karl R. Kranz, the zoo's executive vice president for animal programs and chief operating officer. "It's been a long downward slide that the zoo has been on. It's going to take a while to correct everything."

The zoo has been accredited every five years since 1980 when it first earned the association's approval, which is displayed on the bottom of every page of the Maryland Zoo's Web site.

The 34-year-old Association of Zoos and Aquariums, based in Silver Spring, did not approve a new five-year accreditation in September after inspectors turned up dozens of problems last summer. Instead, it granted a one-year extension.

Zoos need only a license from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to operate. There are approximately 2,500 animal exhibitors with federal licenses, and 219 have AZA accreditation, among them the nation's major zoos, according to Denny L. Lewis, vice president of accreditation programs.

Fewer visitors would compound financial problems for the Maryland Zoological Society Inc., which runs the facility with state and local government grants, operating revenues and donations.

News of the accreditation problem could undercut the boost the zoo got with the birth of an elephant calf this month.

"The public will be disappointed to hear the condition that we're in," Kranz said. "They may choose to visit another zoo."

But loss of accreditation, or even its threat, has also led to a rallying of support for zoos, said Palmer Krantz III, executive director of the Riverbanks Zoo and Garden in Columbia, S.C.

Krantz, the AZA board chairman, said the association reviews about 20 zoos twice annually and that about four operations are typically granted one-year extensions to fix problems.

"I've never seen a zoo [granted an extension] that didn't come back better and stronger than they were before," Krantz said.

When Atlanta's zoo lost the association's approval in the 1980s, "the city rebuilt the zoo from the bottom up," he said.

But the Maryland Zoo's chief operating officer said the work and its costs are daunting. "We made progress addressing some of the issues but not all of them," Kranz said.

None of the problems is related to animal care, he said.

One of the biggest issues concerns below-market salaries for entry-level and mid-level employees. The zoo employs about 180 full-time workers and 70 part-time employees, Hutchinson said.

Wages have been an issue at the zoo for years. Workers unionized in 2002 as part of the United Steelworkers of America. Jim Strong, a United Steelworkers district director, said yesterday that the zoo was constantly experiencing turnover because of low wages.

The union, which no longer represents zoo workers, had complained about high salaries of top executives. In 2005, Elizabeth Grieb, then president of the zoo, earned a $205,774 salary. Four other executives made more than $100,000, according to tax records.

AZA accrediting documents state that salaries for all full-time staff members "should be competitive with other related organizations in the local/regional area."

Grieb left in September to spend more time with her family and could not be reached for comment. She was replaced by Hutchinson.

Deteriorating infrastructure and buildings are the other big problems.

The city is set to approve a $1 million grant to help solve problems with the zoo's water and wastewater facilities. State capital funds of $3 million will help fix the old fire alarm system this summer and pay for other improvements, Hutchinson said.

AZA inspectors also highlighted two issues that were raised in 2006 by U.S. Department of Agriculture inspectors. Kranz said both have been fixed: providing more shade for giraffes and fixing storm water runoff problems in the warthog holding area.

There were about two dozen "lesser" issues, Kranz said. Most were related to physical structures such as the Maryland House facility and to holding pens that do not currently house animals.

"We're not going to allow animals to stay in substandard housing, and when it gets like that we remove the animals and close the exhibits," he said. "We have a plan to repair them and bring them back on line. But it all costs money."

He said an estimate for accreditation repairs in just one of the zoo's three main areas was $5 million. Kranz said he and Hutchinson will meet with the accreditation commission in September.

"I hope we can get enough accomplished to show that we are working on it," Kranz said. "I'm concerned that the list is pretty long and we're not going to have time to tackle everything."