Sedgwick County Zoo hopes to expand elephant exhibit

09/09/2013 11:00 AM

08/06/2014 9:19 AM

More elephants could be headed to the Sedgwick County Zoo by 2016, leaders said Monday, with the ultimate goal of having elephant babies on exhibit someday.

The zoo hopes to kick off a capital campaign soon to raise $10 million to $12 million for an expanded elephant exhibit.

That, however, is contingent upon county commissioners giving the thumbs-up Wednesday to a five-year funding plan that would give the zoo about $31.2 million in the next five years. The agreement would include an average annual budget increase of about $387,000 – with the percentage increase ranging from 5.4 to 7.8. It also would forgive about $945,000 in principal and interest on a loan the zoo took out with the county to build a restaurant, Plaza Beastro, in 2008.

The zoo is a public-private partnership. Zoo officials don’t want to begin a new capital campaign without a commitment from the county to maintain current and future exhibits. The last capital campaign at the zoo was in 2007 for the $3 million Slawson Tiger Trek.The exhibit opened in 2009.

Scott Ochs, president of the Sedgwick County Zoological Society, confirmed that the zoo would like to bring in more elephants for breeding. Stephanie and Cinda, two female elephants from South Africa, have made their home at the zoo since 1972, a year after it opened.

The Association of Zoos and Aquariums is requiring that all zoos it accredits that have female elephants have space for at least one more, either female or male, by September 2016. The zoo’s elephant exhibit also is small and outdated.

“If we don’t do something soon, then the beloved Stephanie and Cinda are going to have to go somewhere else,” County Manager William Buchanan said.

The zoo says a survey last year showed that elephants are among the top three favorite animals of county residents and that Stephanie and Cinda are the most popular animals for the zoo’s “Meet and Greet” program with zookeepers.

Ochs said the zoo would move quickly to expand the elephant exhibit.

“It depends on what happens Wednesday,” Ochs said. “If the county commissioners approve our five-year funding agreement, we will start organizing that immediately.”

It appears the support is there.

“Absolutely,” Commissioner Tim Norton said when asked if he will vote for the agreement Wednesday. “We’ve had those in the past. For a couple years because the budget was a little tight, we didn’t have one. We have to take a long view of the zoo. It’s an important institution in the community, and our partnership with the zoological society is very important to the future of the zoo. Unless there’s just some wild crazy something that comes up and I have to question my overall thoughts, I’m going to be supportive.”

Commissioners Jim Skelton and Dave Unruh also said they planned to vote for the agreement.

“ I think it’s necessary that an agreement be in place so the leadership of the zoo knows what to expect in the future, especially when you consider that they may undertake the initiative to ask the public to help with the elephant exhibit,” Unruh said. “Do we want to have a zoo in our community that’s one of the top-ranked zoos in the country or do we want to not make that priority decision, whose real result is to allow the zoo to decline?”

Skelton said he had heard overwhelming support “from the community and from board members that this is the right thing to do to ensure the longevity and the sustainability of the zoo.”

The county pays most zoo employees’ salaries and, in the past, paid for infrastructure upkeep. The zoological society pays the tab for food, supplies, utilities and other expenses.

The county has fallen “way behind” on maintaining its buildings at the zoo, Buchanan said Monday.

About 85 percent of the county’s money to the zoo in the past has gone toward salaries and 15 percent toward maintaining infrastructure, Buchanan explained. Funding cuts the past couple of years have wiped out any money for maintenance of the buildings, which are owned by the county, he said.

Commissioners Karl Peterjohn and Richard Ranzau said they still weren’t sure how they would vote.

“I’ve got concerns, but I haven’t firmly made up my mind one way or another,” Peterjohn said.

A second option would give the zoo $30.2 million during the next five years. That would be the county’s contribution to salaries and infrastructure if the zoo were to decide not to add more elephants, which would be unlikely.

Mark Reed, director of the zoo, said the zoo wants to have a breeding family and add at least one more female elephant, younger than Cinda and Stephanie, and a male elephant.

“Stephanie and Cinda might make great aunties,” he said.

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