When Zoos Cut Budgets, No Species Is Safe

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A snow leopard enjoys the season's first snowstorm at the Bronx Zoo in New York City on Dec. 20, 2008

There's an amusing video making the e-mail rounds through the New York City environmental crowd. In it, Stephen Saunter, a press officer at the Wildlife Conservation Society and New York's Bronx Zoo, sadly addresses an employee he is about to lay off. The governor has just announced severe budget cuts at the zoo, he says, "so there's no easy way to say this ... we're going to have to let you go." The camera pans over to reveal that the just-fired employee is a porcupine.

It's zoological humor — no one is firing porcupines. But the 109-year-old Bronx Zoo and other zoos and aquariums around the country are facing serious budget cuts as the state and city governments that supply much of their operating costs respond to the recession. In New York State, Governor David Paterson has called for cutting $5 million in funding from the Zoo, Botanical Garden and Aquarium Program budget — dropping total state funding for 75 wildlife and nature centers in the state from $9 million to $4 million in 2009 — and eliminating it altogether in 2010. In North Carolina, state officials are withholding $4 million in wildlife funding because of a budget shortfall; in Kansas City, Mo., municipal leaders cut the city zoo's budget by 20%. "Everyone is being forced to do some belt-tightening," says Steve Feldman, a spokesman for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. (See the top 10 animal stories of 2008.)

For the Bronx Zoo and the New York Aquarium, Paterson's proposed cuts would strike especially hard. Between them, the zoo and the aquarium stand to lose about $3 million, which translates to 30 staff positions. New York officials say the state's environment funding — where the zoo and aquarium money comes from — will be funneled into capital projects like bridges, on the grounds that institutions like zoos can tap private funding. But at the same time, donors to the Bronx Zoo and its sister institutions across the nation are getting squeezed by the economic crisis, leaving the zoos little to fall back on. "We thought they'd use a scalpel to cut, not an ax," says John Calvelli, director of external affairs at the Bronx Zoo. "Where exactly are we supposed to go?"

Zoos are hardly the only organizations to be hit hard by U.S. financial straits — administrators from soup kitchens to schools are fighting for pieces of a shrinking fiscal pie. But zoos and aquariums have less flexibility as they cope with budget cuts. Live animals need to be fed and taken care of, no matter the revenue cuts. "You can't cut back on the food an elephant eats," says Jane Ballentine, the director of marketing at the Maryland Zoo, which has been forced to close for four additional weeks this winter. "If something needs to be fed, it's going to be fed." If a zoo is really struggling with a budget deficit, Feldman notes, wealthier zoos can step in to take over the care of some animals. But "that's a last resort," he says.

In a society that is growing increasingly citified and divorced from nature — some 80% of Americans now live in urban areas — a zoo provides one of the few chances to connect with the other species that share our planet. "This is where you go to learn about the natural world," says Calvelli. "We're living museums." It would be a shame to lose any of them, even in the midst of a recession — and, frankly, who wants to be the person to tell a lion it's being laid off?

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