City Council along with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals Foundation’s (PETA) endorsement, approved the master zoo plan after a lengthy discussion about how to finance improvements.
On Thursday evening, councilor Steve Henderson moved to approve the Spring River Park & Zoo master plan, which councilor Jeanine Corn Best seconded. With a roll call vote from City Clerk Sharon Coll, the motion passed unanimously amongst the Council.
After the meeting, Zoo Superintendent Marge Woods said, “To be part of this is amazing.”
Elizabeth Gilbert, director of administrative services, said voting to approve this master plan, the city was not committing to any costs but rather the vision of the master plan, which a budget would be created for in the future.
Brittany Peet, director of captive animal law enforcement, represented PETA to speak in favor of the adoption of the master plan. Peet said PETA raised concerns in 2016 and was met with resistant attitudes from previous city and zoo staff, but with the master plan, new city leadership and training for zoo operations, there is a visible change in her opinion.
“Removing the mountain lions and bears from concrete pits and providing them with grass and space to roam as well as abandoning corn-crib enclosures will drastically improve animal welfare at the zoo,” Peet said. “Most importantly, the master plan suggests providing enclosures that are based on species’ natural history — meaning that animals like the bears who have in the past spent their days pacing out of distress in boredom, will instead be able to behave more like bears in the wild exploring diverse terrain, digging in soft earth and rubbing against trees.
“PETA supports the objectives of the master plan and agrees with its conclusion that the current condition of the zoo cannot remain. The zoo must either change or close down. The zoo and community have shown their commitment to modernizing the zoo for the benefit of the animals.”
Peet said independent consultant Jay Pratte, who she called a renowned zoological expert, worked with PETA to assess the zoo. Pratte works for Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium and said the expressed views in his report on Spring River Park & Zoo are his ideas alone, without a correlation to the Omaha Zoo.
Urging for the zoo to keep the rescue model, Peet said she could see a future where one day the zoo would become a reputable facility for animals that need lifetime care. Allan Edmonds of Animal Protection of New Mexico shared a similar insight to PETA’s explanation.
After presenting the zoo plan presentation, architect Robert Loftis gave the city the four following steps to move forward: analyze current budget for maintenance and upgrades, identify interim projects to tackle, commit to building the interim mountain lion exhibit in 2018, and lastly, impose a deadline for design and fundraising for Phase 1 in 2019. The $250,000 concentrated on the zoo would change the expectations, direction and perception of the zoo along with the animal welfare, according to Loftis.
“There will be a temptation to spread your money across the whole entire zoo, doing little improvements here and little improvements there,” Loftis said. “The zoo — so I am being very clear — needs to fundamentally change.”
Councilor Henderson said with budget restraints that the city should “eat the elephant one bite at a time” and he encouraged the public and council to buy into the plan and be an advocate of the zoo. Henderson said the city should look into capital outlay and private funding after saying he was certain, hopeful and enthusiastic about adopting the plan.
Best said the master plan with the western theme could generate income from “the agricultural world” and work with educational programs such as the National FFA Organization, formerly known as Future Farmers of America and 4-H, along with the organization from the zoo staff.
“This is my own opinion, PETA and the other gentleman that came from Albuquerque, I understand you are wanting to put your voice into our town,” Best said. “I think it’s great. How about putting a little bit of your income with our alliances since you want to help us so bad? Thank you.”
In response to Best’s comments, Peet said PETA is not in the business of funding zoos but exists to advocate for animals in the worst conditions. Peet said PETA needs to know if the city will be able to provide for the animals as the master plan is implemented and sustainable in the future.
Councilor Juan Oropesa said he supported the plan, though he referenced failed master plans in the past due to funding issues as well as the “dire need” of the city’s infrastructure.
Roebuck, newly elected councilor known for creating the Christmas Railway, called these unfinished plans a failure of the governing body.
“The reality of what I think is going to happen — is if we don’t approve this — chances are, we are killing the zoo,” Roebuck said. “Chances are the zoo is going to die. We need to realize that is what we are saying if we don’t approve this. We are not committing monies here. I appreciate that.”
Councilor Judy Stubbs said she supported the thoughtfulness of the plan and asked if the interim improvements and costs were in the current budget for the fiscal year, which City Manager Joe Neeb said current funds within the zoo’s budget could be allocated for these projects if the City Council passed it.
Referencing the intention to have community and involvement every step of the way, Neeb said the survey reflected the interest in paying admission to help with zoo improvements and for the animals. Gilbert said that folks would be willing to pay for $2 admission in comments to the current zoo. Councilor Caleb Grant asked how soon the zoo was charging admission and Jim Burress, Parks and Recreation director, said the department has fencing to manage foot traffic and is planning for a small building to collect money from visitors now that the plan is approved.
Friends of the zoo
“When you talk about spending money, you need to worry about the animals and the visitors — as well as the zookeepers,” Ivan Hall, treasurer for Friends of the Zoo, said. “We have funds — we’ve had funds built up over a 30-year period. I think the Friends of the Zoo started in like ‘85. The funds have accrued to about $80,000. We’ve already committed to the bobcat exhibit, the eagle exhibit.
“I sense that our group is highly interested in seeing donors from the private sector that we could help get those donors to participate, like in the agricultural industry, which is enormous here. Oil and gas — we’ve got a lot of opportunities, but the Friends of the Zoo’s average age is like 75 to 80. We need young blood on board. We need people that have contacts with entities that have money because there is a lot of love for that zoo. There is a lot of love for the animals. There’s a lot of love for the staff that is trying to do the job.”
Roebuck asked if the Friends of the Zoo, Parks and Recreation staff and the city’s Public Affairs were prepared to help the zoo since the city funding might be “piecemeal.” Hall said the Friends of the Zoo committed to $50,000 with the understanding it is matched by the private sector for immediate improvements. Burress said his staff was energized and ready to work and Juanita Jennings, public affairs director, said yes to Roebuck’s question.
“The zoo will not survive without community support,” City Manager Joe Neeb said. “It will take some sponsorships. It will take donations in order to make this facility succeed. In order to do that, they need to have an understanding of where we are headed with this — for that plan as well, too — and so that masterplan will become very important to us as we try to go and solicit support from the community in order to understand what we are trying to accomplish.”
City reporter Alison Penn can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 205, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.