Even Zoo Animals Get the Pink Slip

Critters of all kinds are among the casualties of the recession.

April 30, 2009— -- You know times are tough when swans, deer and antelope join the ranks of the unemployed.

Earlier this month, one of the most renowned zoos in the country, New York's Bronx Zoo, which is run by the Wildlife Conservation Society, told New York City officials that as it copes the economic downturn, it would have to relocate some of its animals to zoos and aquariums around the country.

Councilman Domenic M. Recchia, Jr., chairman of the City Council's Cultural Affairs Committee, said the 114-year-old institution was on the verge of losing potentially hundreds of animals.

"This is how severe it is," he told ABCNews.com. "It's all about jobs. They're going to have to lay off 80 people – they're giving 80 pink slips. … We have to save our animals. We have to save our cultural institutions."

Recchia said he'd be devastated if the world-famous zoo became known as "a zoo without animals."

In early April, the Wildlife Conservation Society announced that "In light of the challenges facing wildlife conservation and the changing nature of the global economy" it would realign its people and programs to accommodate a $15 million budget reduction.

Mary Dixon, a spokeswoman for the Wildlife Conservation Society and the Bronx Zoo, did not say how much of these cuts the zoo would have to absorb.

She also said the zoo had not yet determined the number of animals it would relocate.

"There is no set number decided upon what animals will be moved within the Bronx, to other WCS facilities and to other facilities that meet or exceed AZA [Association of Zoos and Aquariums] accreditation," she told ABCNews.com.

Among the animals that might get the ax: bats, porcupines, antelope and the camel-like guanaco. Dixon said the zoo will close the World of Darkness, home to a two-toed sloth, broad-nosed caimans and other nocturnal animals. She also said it will move some animals out of the Rare Animal Range and the southeastern corner of the zoo.

But New York's well-known zoo isn't the only zoo struggling because of diminishing public aid. Not all have had to move out animals, but zoos in Kansas, Connecticut, Missouri and Maryland have found themselves in similar economic situations.

Attendance Up but Public Funding Down

Though healthy attendance across the board is keeping private zoos and aquariums above water, those that rely heavily on state and city funding have had to make creative compromises and, in some cases, drastic cuts.

At the Dickerson Park Zoo in Springfield, Mo., long-standing budget issues in the city compounded with the economic downturn have forced the zoo to make do with less and less.

First, the humans felt the pinch: Travel and training, advertising and marketing, and professional services and supplies were reduced.

But then the animals took a hit. The zoo cut some extra treats out of animals' diets and also moved a few animals to other institutions.

Streamlining Diets, Relocating Animals to Save Money

"We have never had to do this before and certainly not for these reasons," said Melinda Arnold, a spokeswoman for the Dickerson Park Zoo. "We're keeping our main priorities -- the health and well-being of the animals and the experience of guests -- and trying to balance and do what's best for both."

Although animal care is the zoo's No. 1 concern, she said they were able to streamline their diets in subtle ways.

"We still provide enrichment and variety but maybe not as much variety," she said. Given how expensive produce is, the zoo, like many families, she said, looks for less expensive kinds.

Pushed to the wall, the zoo sent a pair of hyenas packing to a zoo in Boise, Idaho. Some swans, a pair of lovebirds and an antelope were also sent to zoos around the country.

"In the grand picture of things, that's really all that people will notice," she said, adding that to do much more could threaten attendance and earned revenue, which is the last thing it needs when its other revenue stream is already so impaired.

"Our first priority is we don't want to do anything that will impact the guest experience," she continued. "That would be shooting ourselves in the foot."

Option of Last Resort

Facing a $1 million shortfall, the Kansas City Zoo in Kansas City, Mo., is doing all it can to avoid Dickerson's situation.

"We just tried everything to not have to send animals out of here," said Randy Wisthoff, the zoo director.

In addition to instituting the equivalent of a hiring freeze and trimming its marketing budget, it has cut zoo hours enough so that it only needs one shift of animal keepers per day. It has also cut travel expenses.

Anything but animal care, Wistoff said. "You can't lessen your care -- the care and quality of care you provide for the animals. If you can do it in other ways, that's what you do."

Not only does moving out animals dilute the value of the zoo, it's not an easy task to find new homes.

Moving Animals Could Be 'Monumental' Task

"My assumption would be that it's as difficult as it's ever been. There's only so many cages, so much holding space," he said. "With the budget crisis I have here I couldn't take anything else in."

As for the Bronx Zoo's restructuring plan, he said, "I would assume it's going to be a monumental task for them to do that."

For other zoos around the country, the Bronx Zoo's decision to move out hundreds of animals is disturbing, especially since many rare animals are among the targeted group.

At a recent hearing in New York City, zoo officials said the closed exhibits were selected based on maintenance costs and popularity among visitors, the New York Post reported.

Bronx Zoo's Decision Should 'Sound an Alarm'

"The Bronx Zoo has been a leader in conservation," said Gregg Dancho, zoo director at the Beardsley Zoo in Bridgeport, Conn. "I think it should sound an alarm. I think people should be very concerned."

With donations down 25 percent and its state contribution in jeopardy, Dancho's zoo is in a kind of purgatory, waiting for a finalized budget to determine its fate. But as it adapts to a new economic reality, losing animals is not an option.

"For our size facility, any kind of moving animals would be a detriment for us," Dancho told ABCNews.com. "For a small zoo like we are, that would be a downward spiral. Moving animals out decreases reasons for coming to the zoo."

And though the "charismatic mega-vertebrates," like elephants, rhinos and giraffes, are crowd-pleasers, he said part of a zoo's mission is caring for and introducing the public to smaller, rare animals.

"I'm going to say that probably over 50 percent are species you've never heard of before," he said about his own zoo's roughly 80 species. "That's very important. ? All species need our help."

Still, he said, it's a "balancing act" for all zoos that is made especially difficult in this economic climate.

Zoos, Aquariums Well-Positioned for Success in Economic Downturn

However, even as public aid for zoos from states and cities dwindels, public interest from families looking for affordable outings is surging.

"They are well-positioned to succeed in a down economy," said Steve Feldman, spokesman for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the accrediting institution for the industry.

As families opt for "stay-cations" over more expensive travel vacations, he said, the zoos across the country are seeing very strong attendance.

At the North Carolina Zoo in Asheboro, N.C., good weather combined with people staying close to home has contributed to record weekend attendance. Dogged by financial troubles for years, the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore, Md., is also experiencing a bounce in attendance and private support.

"With limited resources, zoos have to make choices," Feldman said. "But I think they'll still be able to fulfill that mission even with those difficult choices having been made."

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