Niabi Zoo's 50th anniversary comes with uncertainties


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Originally Posted Online: Oct. 07, 2012, 10:57 pm
Last Updated: Oct. 07, 2012, 10:58 pm
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By Stephen Elliott, selliott@qconline.com

As Niabi Zoo prepares to observe its 50th anniversary next year, the Rock Island County-owned facility faces some tough questions about its future.

Fixing the problems outlined by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums when it withdrew Niabi's accreditation in September will be expensive, and the zoo has limited resources. The elephant house -- seen as a major issue by the AZA -- alone could cost $5 million to $6 million to bring into compliance with today's standards.

Even though the AZA pulled Niabi's accreditation, its new report noted the zoo has made progress in several areas even though it is understaffed.

Since the previous report, the zoo has created new risk management documents and protocols, employee morale is greatly improved and there's a greater sense of shared purpose, the AZA report

notes. Housekeeping is "exemplary," the report said.

The shifting nature of zoos

Zoo director Marc Heinzman, who took over the job early this year, said "There's been a big shift in the last 30 years where before you're displaying animals for your amusement purposes.

"Now, the goal is shifting towards conservation. Getting people connected with the animals. Zoos have shifted in the last couple of decades. How do you present the animals to the people?

"That's one of the things we're working on. In the last 10 years, the zoo has made a huge jump in terms of what is being done. Being from here and growing up here, I can personally speak to that.

"We can't build all new exhibits by next year. There's a lot of great things going on here. I know we're going to get it (accreditation) back and stay on the trajectory we were on before."

"We're in a good position to grow and develop," said Mr. Heinzman, but regaining accreditation from the AZA is important.

Without the accreditation, the zoo could lose animals. Gibbons, red wolves, birds and other animals on loan from other zoos could be recalled. AZA accreditation allowed Niabi to participate in conservation and breeding programs, which was why Niabi had baby giraffes born there in recent years.

Looking to the future



Among the suggestions for moving forward is one that the county, which operates the zoo through its Forest Preserve Commission, turn it over to a private or a nonprofit organization, such as the Niabi Zoological Society, a nonprofit group that provides key support to the zoo.

County board member Don Johnston, D-Dist. 11, said he is concerned about losing accreditation and the problems it could pose. "The reality of this is, the county board can't micromanage that zoo.

"It's a great zoo. It's really an asset. Again, I don't think the forest preserve or the county board has the expertise to micromanage it. I think the Niabi Zoological Society makes more sense (running the zoo) than the county board."

Zoological society president John Ferrell said he wanted to reserve comment on Niabi until the board has further discussed the issue.

He said the society is responsible for education and exhibit expansion and is a nonprofit organization. "We're very much for the betterment of the zoo," Mr. Ferrell said.

County board member and Forest Preserve president Tom Rockwell, D-Coal Valley, believes the county is able to operate the zoo efficiently.

He said the zoo realistically will not be able to expand the elephant enclosure by September 2013, when Niabi can reapply for AZA accreditation.

"We need to have a bit time to get it done," he said. "No one would be pleased more than me if we did. Realistically, I don't think there is any point in reapplying (for AZA accreditation) unless we have a new elephant facility."



Budget of $2.2 million


Forest Preserve director Jeff Craver said the zoo's annual budget is about $2.2 million. Besides a tax levy that brings in about $710,000, revenue comes in through admissions and train ticket sales along with other programs, he said.

Mr. Craver said he did not want to comment on the possibility of Niabi being privatized or turned over to a not-for-profit group such as the zoological society

"We've got good people and a community that cares about the zoo," he said. "Attendance continues to grow. The inspectors said it is one of the cleanest zoos they've ever seen.

"We've identified some deficiencies. We're going to do what needs to be done with the funds available to make sure it gets accreditated as quickly as possible."

Niabi has 375 animals representing about 170 species, 19 full-time staff and 50 seasonal staff.

County Board Chairman Jim Bohnsack said privatizing a zoo isn't as simple as it sounds.

"The forest preserve can't sell any ground," Mr. Bohnsack said. "Zoos are very expensive. It's not like golf courses where you can make money. Businesses have to get money from other than taxes."

Zoo 'doing something right'

Mr. Bohnsack said he believes the zoo can remain a public, tax-suported entity.

"I do," he said. "But, they (Niabi) have to have the zoological society working hand-in-hand, or it will never work. Over a quarter million people are visiting every year. You know they're doing something right."

Mr. Bohnsack said the county is going to be committed to a new elephant enclosure. He estimates the costs at $5 to $6 million. Mr. Craver said Niabi is the only Illinois zoo with elephants.

"It's a huge issue," he said. "People want to see elephants. You can come to the zoo and see them. We're going to be committed to making sure they are in a herd environment and taken care of."

In 2010, the group, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals asked members to write Mr. Bohnsack to retire Babe and Sophie to a sanctuary. In 2011, the non-for-profit group called In Defense of Animals named Niabi one of the Top 10 worst zoos for elephants.

"This small zoo brags that it is the only facility with elephants in Illinois, but it should be ashamed of the grossly inadequate conditions in which it keeps them," the IDA said.

Veterinarian discusses elephants

Dr. Richard Rock, a Quad-Cities veterinarian, has seen Babe and Sophie on a regular basis. He checks their feet, draws blood and inspects their overall well-being.

"If we had a larger group and a larger space, no doubt it would make for happier elephants in the long run," Dr. Rock said. "Having said that, I think Babe and Sophie now have excellent substrate. There is a lot of sand out there to support their footing.

"On the interior of their enclosure is a rubber mat that helps foot conditions. They have access to a pool and make good use of it. Would I like it (enclosure) to be bigger? Of course. It's not as though it's a substandard building. It's just the standards changed."

County board member Phil Banaszek, D-Dist. 9, said , "If the issues are insurmountable, maybe we ought to look at some different options," Mr. Banaszek said. "I don't know where the recent privatization suggestion came about or if this is just out there with the whole AZA thing.

"I've been here all my life. Niabi went from a petting zoo to being taken over by the county. It's grown by leaps and bounds over the years. I want to get different input and do what's right for the zoo."

A 'bright futue'

Mr. Heinzman said he believes Niabi has a bright future, but some tough choices will have to be made.

"If the community wants elephants at the Niabi Zoo, then we're going to need their help basically," Mr. Heinzman said.

He said the zoo has about $500,000 set aside for the multimillion dollar elephant housing project.

"Money is always a limiting factor," he said. "We've got 200 acres of land, which is unheard of. We're only using 40 of it. That's a rare commodity for the zoo field.

"We're in a unique position for future growth. We just need to have the capabilities to utilize it."



















 



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