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City wants public comment about future of zoo

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Lisa Dunlap Photo The habitat of these black bears at the Spring River Park and Zoo, being watched by a young girl during her Saturday afternoon visit, has been the subject of controversy this year between the city of Roswell and the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

Copyright © 2021 Roswell Daily Record

The city-owned Spring River Park and Zoo is considered an educational gem to some, an antiquated and inhumane exhibit of animals to others.

Now the city of Roswell is seeking public comments and thoughts about future development of the zoo, a free attraction with five animal exhibit areas for about 136 animals including birds, goats, llamas, raccoons, bobcats, antelope, deer, prairie dogs, bears and mountain lions. The city wants residents to participate in a survey and attend a public forum later this month to share their thoughts.

The request for input is prompted not only by the city’s ongoing plans to manage and improve the zoo facilities and operations, but also by repeated online and written complaints about the exhibits and the treatment of some of the animals.

Several online complaints have been lodged against the zoo, but the situation escalated April 13 when representatives with the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals offered the city $10,000 to renovate the existing “pit-style” mountain lion exhibit in exchange for releasing to the group the zoo’s two black bears, Ursula and Sierra. PETA said it would then pay to relocate the bears to a sanctuary. The bears and mountain lions are now in enclosures that have crevices filled with water separating them from the front fences.

PETA said the $10,000 was offered to pay for closure of the existing exhibits and creation of a mountain lion habitat “that includes a natural substrate, adequate space, and appropriate furniture and enrichment features.” But the money was also predicated on the release of the bears to them.

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According to various letters by PETA to city officials, the animals at the zoo are suffering from obesity, distress, frustration and “insanity” because they are confined to small spaces and cages that inhibit or prohibit their natural behaviors.

“Life in a decrepit pit is actually no life at all: Bears confined to such enclosures are denied the opportunity to roam, forage and do everything else that’s natural and important to them,” Alexandria Frandina-Brown of PETA wrote to Mayor Dennis Kintigh on July 28.

City officials rejected the offer in August, noting in letters to PETA that the zoo facilities and its animals regularly passed U.S. Department of Agriculture inspections regarding health and safety. They announced instead that they would hire a zoo consultant and seek public input about ways to improve the zoo operations, including financially and in terms of exhibit upgrades.

City Manager Joe Neeb said that the PETA offer did not allow the city to consider the community vision for the zoo.

“Essentially we declined the offer … because we want to bring the community in to discuss the importance of the asset, what it should be in the future,” he said, “and create that master plan so that the facility can be enjoyed for generations.”

PETA pressed the issue again Aug. 16 sending out news releases about what they called the suffering of animals and a letter written by actress, animal rights activist and New Mexico resident Ali MacGraw urging city officials to release the bears and mountain lions to sanctuaries. “These intelligent animals are far-ranging and need vast spaces in which to roam, climb and engage in other species-specific behavior,” she wrote.

Neeb responded by inviting MacGraw to tour the zoo and take part in master planning. As part of that planning, the city is asking Roswell residents to participate through a survey and a public forum.

According to a city news release, the city would prefer that people complete the survey online, which can be found on the “News Flash” section of the city website, roswell-nm.gov. Residents also can obtain paper copies of the survey at City Hall, 425 N. Richardson; the zoo office, 1306 E. College Blvd.; or the Adult and Recreation Center, 807 N. Missouri Ave. The deadline for the survey is Oct. 31.

The public forum to discuss the zoo is scheduled for 6 p.m., Wednesday, Oct. 25, at the Roswell Museum and Art Center, 100 W. 11th St.

Senior writer Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 310, or at reporter02@rdrnews.com.