Aging zoo's needs add up

Beneath one of its most popular tourist attractions, the state of North Carolina keeps a dungeon.

In the tunnels under the African Pavilion at the N.C. Zoo, water streams down interior walls and through electrical boxes. Cables that open and close metal cages rust and snap. In the winter, heat lamps are needed to keep the tortoises warm in their night quarters. In summer, fans hum – unless the electricity goes out.

Twenty-four years after it was built, the African Pavilion, one of the zoo's original gems, has become a symbol of the decay creeping throughout the park.

Officials say the zoo needs $10 million to repair and expand the polar bear exhibit, update the children's center and pay for design work on a cluster of buildings that would replace the African Pavilion.

If the state provides $6 million, the park's private fundraising arm, the N.C. Zoological Society, has promised the other $4 million.

In the next few years, the zoo will need an estimated $30 million to build the pavilion's replacement and millions more for infrastructure repairs and upgrades.

Whether that money comes through or not, the African Pavilion will be emptied of animals by the end of 2009, for their safety and that of their keepers. Half the pavilion's collection already has been moved to other zoos or has died and not been replaced.

“You can't buy a house and imagine that 30 years later it's going to be like it was,” says David Jones, the zoo's director. “But it's not very attractive to spend money for maintenance.”

When the N.C. Senate approved its budget last week, it included money only for the polar bears.

Jones says such shortfalls make it hard for the park to make long-range plans for work that will help the zoo hold its place among top facilities in the world.

Historically, Jones says, the park has had two problems getting enough state money to keep up the buildings and exhibits. It sits in Asheboro, 75 miles from Raleigh, out of sight and mind of many lawmakers. And old-timers in the legislature remember hearing that the zoo's early supporters promised in the 1960s – before it was built – that the facility would support itself.

“If you give us a million dollars,” Sen. Tony Rand, the Senate Majority Leader, says legislators were told, “we won't ever ask you for any more money.”

Most of the 750,000 visitors expected at the zoo this year won't notice the problems that keep Johnny McDonald, plant maintenance supervisor, hopping.

Shrinking Africa

The two continents that make up the N.C. Zoo – Africa, opened in 1979, and North America, in 1994 – were built in stages, using different designers, technologies, materials and contractors, all working at the lowest bid. Buildings that house animals get constant use and are subjected to huge amounts of water for the animals to live and play in and drink and for keepers to clean the habitats and sustain the foliage that makes the settings look real.

When it was built, the African Pavilion, with its signature three-peaked tented roof, was state of the art, says Robyn Rousseau, a keeper who has worked in the building for 16 years. Three years ago, 90 animals lived in the pavilion representing 23 African species.

The population has dwindled to about 42. Where Colobus monkeys used to climb a giant fake tree, there is a staghorn fern exhibit. At other vacated habitats, visitors simply find signs reading, “EXHIBIT CLOSED.”

Today, Rousseau says, this kind of space would be designed differently. Exhibits would be divided into separate areas; they would be air-conditioned for the benefit of the animals and visitors; most of the animals would get more room and, when off exhibit, would be kept above-ground with access to natural light and, when possible, the outdoors.

“I hate to see them go,” Rousseau said of the shrinking collection, “but I want the animals to be happy.”

One aging polar bear

The polar bear exhibit also was top of the line when North America opened in 1994, though the pool, one of the zoo's most popular exhibits, has always leaked.

Back then, Jones says, “Everybody thought that polar bears just needed water. Give them a big pool, and they'll be fine. We now know that they're very investigative and exploratory. They need a lot of stimulation and a lot of land area.”

The zoo's one bear is aging, and to qualify for younger ones from a Canadian breeding program, the exhibit would have to be brought up to current standards. It needs to be two to three times larger, Jones says.

Since the zoo was built, it has relied heavily on financial support from the Zoo Society, which has raised millions from individual and corporate sponsors. In the absence of state money, the Zoo Society has paid for exhibit design and construction and for animal purchase and transport, among other things.

Crisis management

It's not that legislators don't like the zoo, says Kathy Bull, who became the society's first lobbyist last year. But until she began inviting them for tours that included the pavilion's damp underbelly, many had never been to the zoo and had no idea what it cost to run. More know now, Bull says, but with the mental health care system in crisis, state workers needing raises and other demands, it's hard for them to give the zoo what it needs.

In May, an incident at the zoo showed what can happen when maintenance is put off. On Thursday before Mother's Day weekend, a water line in Africa sprung a leak. Because shut-off valves weren't mapped, didn't exist or didn't work, that leak caused a larger rupture that opened a sink hole and eventually forced the whole park's water to be shut off.

The zoo was closed through the weekend, turning away 7,000 visitors and losing $120,000 in admissions.

“This is what I've been talking about,” Bull says she told anyone who would listen the following week. “This was a huge financial hit, and this was nothing compared to what's going to happen.

“We've got to invest, or do crisis management, and it makes more sense to invest.”