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Published: Tuesday, 9/13/2005

Zoo gets temporary reprieve from deficit

The good news is that the Toledo Zoo was out of the hole at the end of August. The bad news is it probably won't be for long.

Allison Duncan, the zoo's finance director, said a disbursement of property tax revenue put the zoo's balance sheet temporarily in the black after repeated reports of deficit spending. Ms. Duncan spoke yesterday at the regular meeting of the zoo's board of directors.

But she predicted no long-term relief from the budget crunch and noted the zoo is still behind projections for the year.

Hot weather melted zoo attendance this summer, and donations to the zoo remain below projections. Steadily rising fuel prices worsened the problem. Even though departments throughout the zoo cut costs by a total of $325,000, the institution is still $1 million behind its projected revenue, Ms. Duncan said.

"People just don't want to walk around the zoo when it's 95 degrees and 100 percent humidity," she said.

Ms. Duncan said the Cleveland and Columbus zoos have reported similar drops.

But board members are looking beyond this year's budget difficulties to develop a strategy for the future.

Zoo business consultant Richard Biddle of the Philadelphia management consulting firm Schultz & Williams Inc. told the board the Toledo Zoo is in transition.

"You have a wonderful core product," Mr. Biddle told the board. "When people ask me what are the great zoos, Toledo is always on my list."

But the zoo is out of space to grow and it needs to find new ways to increase revenue. That revenue growth will come not from more people outside of the community visiting the zoo; instead, it will be the zoo faithful who pull the institution through.

In arriving at a business strategy, the consultant said, the zoo also will need to look at the tax levies that support it. Currently, a levy covers about 27 percent of the institution's operating expenses. A future levy may have to cover a larger percentage of those expenses.

He said the zoo will have to look for special events that draw its members to visit the zoo and spend money. As an example, he said, zoos offer opportunities for zoo visitors to feed animals as revenue generators.

The zoo plans just such an event Sept. 24. The day will begin with breakfast for the humans, then the humans will have an opportunity to feed the animals. The breakfast will be $7.95 for adults, $3.50 for children. Animal feeding prices will range from $2 to feed the ducks, to $50 for a chance to go behind the scenes and feed the seals.

In other business, the board voted to make Dr. Wynona Shellabarger the zoo's acting chief veterinarian. Dr. Shellabarger essentially has been serving in that capacity since the firing of the zoo's longtime veterinarian, Dr. Tim Reichard, in February.

The board also voted to form a committee to search for a permanent chief vet. Dr. Shellabarger will be considered.

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