The Sedgwick County Zoo will break ground next month on a new $10.5 million elephant exhibit after county commissioners voted 3-2 Wednesday to contribute $5.3 million toward the project.
The county will use money from its reserves – about $60 million at the end of last year – to build an 18,000-square-foot barn for the zoo’s two elephants, Stephanie and Cinda, and as many as seven more.
“We’re ecstatic,” Sedgwick County Zoological Society President Scott Ochs said after the meeting. “I just got an e-mail from one of our head elephant keepers who was crying with relief. We’re going to continue to be a world-class zoo.”
Discussion among commissioners was pointed at times, with board member Richard Ranzau opining that elephants appeared to have more political connections than the boys served by the Judge Riddel Boys Ranch, which the county closed in July because of funding concerns.
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Ranzau and Commissioner Karl Peterjohn voted against giving the zoo taxpayer money for the exhibit, saying there were more pressing uses for the funds.
Ranzau said there was unanimous support on the board to keep the zoo’s elephants and to expand the exhibit but that the project should be scaled down. He said since three commissioners supported the project, the commission had not asked enough questions about alternatives.
“By saying ‘no’ to the boys ranch and saying ‘yes’ to this, it shows our community our true priorities. I don’t understand the idea that you can put elephants over human beings … but that’s what this commission is saying over the course of time,” Ranzau said. “I think it’s a sad day in Sedgwick County when elephants have more political connections than the boys at the boys ranch.”
Commissioner Tim Norton took offense and responded directly to Ranzau.
“Over the years I’ve asked plenty of questions,” Norton said. “I’ve talked with numerous zoo board members. I’ve talked with Mark Reed (the zoo’s director). I have studied this issue in our community. Anybody that thinks different is woefully wrong about Tim Norton.
“Secondly, anybody that knows me understands that I haven’t picked animals over boys. That decision was made in a different manner. Some of us are working on alternative solutions for the boys that were out at the ranch. I will continue to do that. Anybody that thinks that I don’t understand humankind and the human condition and the underserved and those that need help in our community don’t understand Tim Norton, and I don’t like that kind of language coming from a colleague. I think you’re overstating your case about me, and you can refrain from that as far as I’m concerned.”
County, society funding
The Association of Zoos and Aquariums is requiring that zoos it accredits that feature female elephants have at least three – another female or a male – by September 2016. Peterjohn called the requirement an “unfunded mandate” and suggested that the zoo consider aligning itself with another organization.
The zoo plans to bring in four more elephants and hopes to eventually have a breeding herd. The society has pledged to raise about $1 million more for the exhibit and will turn to a public fundraising campaign to do so.
The society also will give the county naming rights to the 18,000-square-foot elephant barn, which Norton emphasized was far more than a barn. The building will include a large public viewing area, a kitchen the public can view and a training wall for the elephants, among other features. The county’s support also will pay for a piece of machinery called a “rotating elephant restraining device” that will be used during medical checkups.
The new elephant exhibit is the zoo’s most costly undertaking. Its biggest previous project was the $6.4 million Downing Gorilla Forest in 2004. The society most recently raised $3 million for the Slawson Family Tiger Trek, which opened in 2009.
Last year, the county approved a funding agreement that gave the zoo about $31.2 million over the next five years, including money to hire staff members for a larger elephant exhibit. The agreement did not include any money for the actual exhibit, which zoo officials emphasized at the time.
Before that the county had fallen behind on maintenance of its buildings at the zoo. Officials didn’t want to begin a fundraising campaign for the new elephant exhibit without a commitment from the county to maintain current and future exhibits. The five-year agreement served as that commitment.
The zoo is a public-private partnership. The county pays most zoo employees’ salaries and pays for infrastructure upkeep. The zoological society pays for food, supplies, utilities and other expenses. The society typically has raised money privately for exhibits, a point Peterjohn made repeatedly.
Zoo vs. boys ranch
Peterjohn put forth a motion to give the zoological society six more months to raise the money for the barn itself. If it couldn’t, he suggested, the zoo might consider a different group for accreditation. The motion failed. Ranzau put forth a motion to pay for the elephant barn but also reopen the boys ranch. It failed.
“The two topics are not germane, sir,” Commissioner Jim Skelton told Ranzau.
Unruh said, “to continue to bring up the decision that was made some months ago on JRBR opens up the whole discussion of what is the responsibility of the commission and what is the responsibility of the (state).”
The boys ranch was a youth residential center II operated by the county on behalf of the state. The state paid the county $126 per day per boy, but the county’s costs were about $200 per boy per day. The ranch also needed more than $2 million in repairs, county officials said.
Commissioners supporting the elephant exhibit noted during the past couple weeks that giving the zoo $5.3 million was a one-time expense compared with an annual subsidy for the boys ranch.
Peterjohn questioned Mark Reed, the zoo’s director, about other organizations that accredit zoos, particularly the Zoological Association of America. A predecessor group of that organization was founded by a previous director of the zoo, Reed said. In Kansas, that group accredits Tanganyika Wildlife Park in Goddard and Wright Park Zoo in Dodge City.
Reed said the AZA is the “gold standard” of zoo groups. He said of the Zoological Association of America’s accredited zoos, only the Fort Worth Zoo, which also is accredited by the AZA, would meet “our standards of care.”
“That organization has three institutions that I can name that have lost their AZA accreditation. Most of these are what I refer to as ‘roadside menageries,’” Reed said.
Alan Sironen, a board member of the Zoological Association of America, later told The Eagle that that group and the AZA are two top trade organizations and represent “the finest zoos in the country.” He said the groups share members.
Reed told Peterjohn that the zoo would lose some of its animals, including gorillas and tigers, if it lost AZA accreditation.
“I do not want to be the one to be calling Barry Downing and tell him this is what’s happening,” Reed said of the Downing Gorilla Forest.
Norton, recognizing the former commissioners who “stepped off the ledge and put into motion the Sedgwick County Zoo,” said he would not vote against keeping Stephanie and Cinda in Wichita.
“On my watch, I’m not going to let elephants go away from this community,” Norton said, adding that his decision might ruffle some in the community. “I’m willing to take the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune because that’s what we’re required to do for the betterment of our community.”