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Zoo forum brings out ideas for changes; Consultants tell attendees zoo is popular but acknowledge validity of concerns

Ivan Hall, a retired city manager, talks with Ace Torre of Torre Design Consortium Ltd. of New Orleans during the Wednesday night public forum about the future of the Spring River Park and Zoo. Torre Design is a subcontractor working with MRWM Landscape Architects of Albuquerque to develop a master plan for the zoo. (Lisa Dunlap Photo)

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Much can be done fairly soon without a huge outlay of money to improve the Spring River Park and Zoo, people attending a Wednesday night public forum heard from the consultants working with the city to develop a master plan.

People attending the public forum Wednesday night about the city-owned Spring River Park and Zoo broke into groups to name at least three “big ideas” regarding the future of the city attraction. Seated at the table with his hand to his temple is Robert Loftis of MRWM Landscape Architects of Albuquerque, the primary consultant working with the city to develop a master plan for the attraction. Subcontractor Ace Torre of Torre Design Consortium Ltd. of New Orleans stands behind him after having given a presentation about some of the 40 zoos and aquaria the firm has worked on over the years. (Lisa Dunlap Photo)

According to city staff, completed citizen surveys indicate the zoo is popular and appreciated, yet it has drawn concern from some animal rights activists. Representatives with the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals have circulated online petitions against the zoo’s “concrete pits” and “obese” animals, called for a U.S. Department of Agriculture inspection and offered the city $10,000 to improve the mountain lions’ enclosure if they would turn over the two black bears for relocation to an animal sanctuary.

The crowd of about 23 people attending the forum at the Roswell Museum and Art Center with about five city staff and the two consultants did not offer any protests or angry remarks. But consultants acknowledged the concerns.

“Whether or not you agree with how they delivered their messages, some of those are warranted criticisms,” said Robert Loftis of MRWM Landscape Architects of Albuquerque. MRWM is the primary consulting firm for the zoo, having received a $35,000 contract to develop the master plan. Its subcontractor is Torre Design Consortium Ltd. of New Orleans.

L. Azeo “Ace” Torre told the group that his firm has worked on 40 small and large zoos and aquaria in the United States, Canada and China. Elaborate and exotic animal exhibits can cost $4 million an acre, he said, but more agricultural, riparian or rural-type exhibits that could be appropriate for the Roswell zoo cost significantly less.

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He also said that zoos are developed in phases and that the local zoo could take some immediate steps to improve both the visitor experience and the animals’ habitats. The consultants mentioned replacing chain-link fence with different types of barriers, adding landscaping inside and outside of enclosures and combining enclosures to expand the areas available for some animals.

Torre also said that zoos can serve great missions, with some providing rehabilitation for wounded animals that then are released back into their natural habitats or engaging in breeding programs for endangered species. He said good zoos also serve visitors, entertaining them, giving them an educational experience not only about animals but about their region and the larger world, providing dining and gift shops, even water attractions and hands-on learning activities.

“How do we create conservation of these resources and preservation of these critters? We do that by building exhibits that create change, that make an emotional bond between critters and visitors,” he said. “The things that a zoo can do in addition to being a vital part of your life … is creating change.”

The city now pays about $840,000 a year to support the zoo, which does not charge admission, City Manager Joe Neeb said. A small amount of support also comes from donations and sponsorships of exhibits. According to presenters, the zoo is popular, with about 50,000 to 60,000 visits a year. A zoo that attracts an equal number of visits as the area’s population is a strong attraction, according to the consultants.

Still, people’s ambivalence about what consultants called “outdated” exhibits, many of which lack natural vegetation or adequate space for animals, is also evident. Of about 350 to 370 citizen surveys completed, 174 said that the animals were their favorite part of the attraction while 149 said the animals were their least favorite part of the zoo. Elizabeth Gilbert, director of administrative services, said the latter response indicated how people felt about the enclosures. Yet only 24 survey respondents thought the zoo should be closed. Most responding to a question about needed changes said infrastructure improvements were necessary.

People attending broke into small group discussions to come up with ideas for changes. Former city manager and current Eastern New Mexico University-Roswell Community College Board member Ralph Fresquez suggested a “unique zoo made up of a compilation of animals native to New Mexico” rather than a zoo that had animals from other environments that require expensive habitats. Other people mentioned butterfly and insect gardens, more revenue, better habitats for the mountain lions and bears, trees and shade for animals and visitors, better signage and landscaping, and more educational information.

Annie Nelson of Roswell said she thought the ideas presented were interesting, but that so much about changes will depend on funding. “I think it is a great idea to make the enclosures better and to make the zoo more friendly and enticing for visitors,” she said. Nelson visits fairly regularly and is a supporter of staff efforts to care for the animals and keep the enclosures clean.

The consultants will meet today with city staff to discuss not only public comments but obtain more information from zoo workers and city leaders. Torre visited the zoo for the first time Wednesday, while Loftis has been there a few times. Neeb said that no pool of money has been set aside to improve the zoo, but that the first step is to develop the master plan, a draft of which is expected in three months.

“Right now, we don’t have a clear idea of what the zoo is,” he said, explaining that most zoo animals are rescue animals. “Is it a zoo. Is it a rescue? Is it both? We need to have a clear understanding first.”

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

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Lisa Dunlap is a general assignment reporter for the Roswell Daily Record.