Friday, Oct 19, 2018
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Op-Ed Columns

Zoo board tackles challenges




THE Toledo Zoo is one of our community s greatest gems. For the last century it has been a source of tremendous community pride.

For many area residents like me, it is a vivid part of a lifetime of cherished memories, spanning our own visits to the zoo when we were children to visits with our own children. That is why I m extremely proud to lead the zoo s board of directors.

My feelings about the zoo are typical. Most of us feel a close bond with the zoo, even a sense of ownership. Given that strong connection, public concern over recent questions about the organization s operations and practices is understandable and appropriate.

Over the past several weeks, Blade readers have undoubtedly read about the dismissal of zoo veterinarian Dr. Timothy Reichard and his request for reinstatement. That controversy has spurred a number of questions about zoo operations and administrative practices.

The zoo board represents the people of Lucas County. It is comprised of a diverse and dedicated group of people who take their responsibility for overseeing this community institution very seriously. We value the public s trust and the trust of all who have supported the zoo during its 100-year history.

We are committed to doing the right thing and ensuring that the zoo remains a vibrant part of our community. We are doing that through a balanced examination of the facts, with both internal and external reviews.

The board is committed to an open and honest review of Dr. Reichard s dismissal and of our operations. Three internal board committees have begun reviews. The first is examining the dismissal of Dr. Reichard. The second is reviewing the zoo s structure and culture.

Third, the finance committee is reviewing and updating zoo policies on cars, travel, and executive compensation. These reviews are a process of fact-finding, consideration of the facts, and reaching conclusions and recommendations in the best interests of the institution.

The Lucas County Commissioners have also established a task force with a wide-range of expertise to review zoo operations. We are committed to working closely with this task force to provide it with all of the information it needs to accomplish its task.

The public and the media are asked to give these committees time to do their work before forming conclusions or rushing to judgment. We are committed to keeping the public informed about the results of these reviews and resulting decisions.

In addition to these steps, it s also worth noting that two external agencies, the United States Department of Agricultural (USDA) and the American Zoo and Aquarium Association (AZA), also have ongoing oversight responsibilities and conduct regular reviews. In addition, an outside auditor conducts annual audits of the zoo s finances.

The Toledo Zoo is an accredited member of the AZA. Less than 10 percent of licensed facilities in the United States have met AZA s rigorous standards in animal care, ethics, conservation, and education. The zoo board monitors reports from these groups to assure ourselves that zoo management is accountable and responsive to matters noted in these reviews.

Certainly our zoo faces challenges, but it would be grossly unfair not to acknowledge the great deal of success and progress the institution has made since the zoological society took over operations in 1982.

Since then, the zoo has nearly doubled in size, with the addition of a number of innovative exhibits, including the Hippoquarium, the Arctic Encounter, and Africa! The number of annual visitors to the zoo has nearly tripled from 364,000 in 1982 to more than 1 million last year.

The zoo also makes a tremendous contribution to our region s economy. A study conducted last year by researchers at Bowling Green State University found that the Toledo Zoo generates nearly $8 in local economic activity for each dollar it receives in tax levy funds. That is a $70 million annual contribution to our economy.

Thanks to its growth and success, our zoo has steadily decreased its reliance on tax dollars. Two decades ago tax dollars contributed nearly 70 percent of the zoo s operating budget. Today, tax dollars make up about 27 percent of operating revenues. To clarify another issue, other sources of revenue such as donations, ticket sales, and concessions pay for the zoo s levy campaigns. Taxpayer dollars are not used.

In the last five years alone, the Toledo Zoo has twice been ranked as one of the top 10 zoos in the country for kids and families. More recently it was voted one of the top five zoos in the country in the America s Favorite Zoo contest sponsored by Microsoft.

Everyone should take the opportunity to see for themselves that the zoo is thriving. While I spent my professional career in accounting and finance, my undergraduate degree was actually in zoology.

That background makes me extremely appreciative of our animal collection, one of the most diverse in the world. We are also proud of our efforts to conserve and restore our Works Progress Administration (WPA) era buildings and the maintenance of our beautiful grounds.

I am grateful to the people responsible for the zoo s success our employees, volunteers, donors, members, visitors, and the taxpayers of Lucas County. The zoo s 157 full-time staff members and more than 550 part-time and seasonal employees share a love for animals and a commitment to the zoo s mission. They all work extremely hard to ensure that the animals are well cared for and that visitors have a positive experience.

Our 300-plus volunteers are an integral part of the zoo s success, assisting with programs, events, and community outreach. Our donors and members help support our mission of animal conservation and educational programming.

And of course, most important of all has been the support of our 1995 Master Plan by Lucas County taxpayers, who funded a bigger, better Toledo Zoo through the capital levy that expires this year.

I firmly believe that steps the board of directors is taking will restore the trust and confidence in our Toledo Zoo and resolve any issues of concern. To do otherwise would be unfair to both this community gem and the people who love it.

Stephen H. Staelin is chairman of the Toledo Zoo board of directors.

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